Researcher and Writer in Washington, DC

Do We Still Need Public Libraries?

Martin Luther King Library, Washington, DC. Source:

The December 27, 2012 New York Times online “room for debate” asks the question, “Do we still need libraries?” (See here.)

There wasn’t much of a debate, alas. The four contributors all basically said they liked public libraries. Their short essays little addressed the questions posed by the Times, which were, “Many public libraries are seeing an opportunity to fill the void created by the loss of traditional bookstores. Is that the right direction for libraries to take? What are libraries for, and how should they evolve?”

Harvard professor, Susan Crawford, offered the most interesting take, arguing that the heavy use of libraries for Internet access as symptomatic of the problem of the “digital divide.”

This moves us toward the more fundamental public policy issue, which is “What goals should libraries achieve, and are libraries the best tools for achieving them?”

Now, before anyone infers (wrongly) I am anti-library, let me state for the record that I love libraries, and I have worked at one for nearly a decade. Whenever I am near a library I feel the urge to go in and poke around.

Yet, I cannot help but think public libraries are facing an uncertain future. There are at least four reasons for this feeling.

First, public libraries were founded in the United States to make books available to those who could not afford them. In economic terms, books and the knowledge they held were viewed as public goods. Make good books available freely to those who cannot purchase their own, and the Republic will benefit. Today, very few members of the public are so poor that they cannot afford to buy a book.  Books, even hardbacks, are astonishingly inexpensive, especially if purchased used.  One can go to a Goodwill store, yard sale, or online and find plenty of books selling for a couple dollars. (For example, a used copy of Niall Ferguson’s 800-page history of World War I can be had for under $5.)  I myself have pulled books from recycling bins—-whole armloads of them.  FREE BOOKS.  In short, the days of the masses having to save their nickels for a year to purchase a single calf-bound, gold-tooled, pricey tomes has passed.

Second, the technological phenomenon known as the Internet has made an enormous wealth of information freely available to anyone with Internet access. Yes, much of the stuff on the Internet is rubbish—but, there is much that is good. Take Project Gutenberg, for example, which currently offers 40,000 books for free, including classics such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. One also can read good many newspapers and periodicals for free on the Internet.  And let’s be honest, public libraries stock plenty of rubbish, including 50 Shades of Grey and dopey videos (Elf , anyone?)  This technological development brings us back to the point raised by Professor Crawford—if much of the world’s knowledge is moving to the Web, then perhaps public dollars should be allocated more directly toward achieving universal Internet access.

Third, as alluded above, the notion that access to books would improve the public is a tricky proposition. At bottom, it raises the question, “Which books are worth stocking?”  It strikes me as inarguable that the public is more likely to benefit from a “How to Prepare for a Job Interview Guide” than a copy of the latest James Patterson novel (diverting though it might be). But, woe to anyone today who should try to limit public libraries holdings to “good” books.  The cries of censorship would be immediate and loud, and many patrons (who use the library as a free source for borrowing trendy, trashy novels and videos) would cease coming.  So it is today that libraries are confused institutions, whipsawed between trying to provide content that is good for the public but trying to lure people in with popular less-than-educational materials.

Fourth, both library administrators and politicians have assigned libraries new tasks, seemingly without much thought to the libraries’ long-term well-being.  Want to get tax forms—go to the library.  Want to see historical displays of what your town used to look like?  Go to the library.  Need to print out your resume, borrow a music recording,  join a social group, borrow an e-reader, or nab the latest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm—go to the library.  In Washington, DC, eyes were popped a couple years ago when it was revealed that one public library set up a big television to show NFL games. (Libraries’ budgets are often tied to how many visitors they get each year, which creates the incentive to do anything to lure foot traffic.)  Year after year, libraries take up more and more duties, making them more and more ambiguous in nature, subsuming the compelling their initial raison d’etre: to improve the public through providing educational books.

Thirty years ago, Edward C. Banfield pondered why America has public museums and whether doing so still made sense. (See The Democratic Muse.) Something similar seems worth doing for libraries, although I would love to see this discussion had publicly, not in cloistered librarian and scholarly corners.

So, some of the questions we might ask are:

(1) Do we really need public libraries?  If so, for what purposes?  Are there more effective ways to achieve these purposes? For example, would it be better to replace libraries with public subsidies to give everyone high speed Internet access, or an annual stipend to purchase books?

(2) Should libraries be returned to their original purpose—as places where those with limited funds can freely access educational materials they could not otherwise afford?  In the 21st century, this might mean renaming them community media centers, and sharply focusing their missions to providing access to hard copy and digital media—which might include hard copy and Internet text (prose, poetry, etc.), television, web video, music, and perhaps art.

(3) Should the libraries we have be kept and greatly expanded?  Should we re-conceptualize them as more akin to educational centers, places that are less about books and more about providing the public with access to educational materials, training, and help functioning in today’s complex society?  Might it make sense to merge public libraries with community colleges?

(4) Should libraries be transformed into one-stop community service centers where one, say, can mail packages, participate in educational activities, pick up tax forms, prepare job applications, and access media?

(5) What items should libraries stock?  Should libraries stock videos and popular novels like Fifty Shades of Grey, or only reference materials or media that may improve citizens’ socioeconomic or civic capacities?

(6) Should libraries be permitted and encouraged to offer more services for fees, e.g., opening cafes, selling books, e-readers, etc.?

(7) In many communities, public libraries are more utilized by the affluent than the poor.  Are we comfortable with this?  Or should some policies be adopted to encourage heavier library usage by the more needy members of society, perhaps by relocating  libraries into the poorer parts of communities or even co-locating them with social service agencies?

Obviously, I do not claim to have any answers—but I hope you will take up this discussion with me on Twitter, G+, and Facebook.


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