Libraries – Do We Need Them Any More?
In a world in which every home computer provides access to more information than used to exist in your friendly neighborhood library, exactly what is the function of a library now? Librarians are asking themselves this question in all kinds of ways.
Consider the example of cities such as Washington which debates whether to build a new downtown central library or devote resources to sprucing up neighborhood branches, and as those branches try to decide whether to emphasize access to computers or providing a rich selection of classic literature and current bestsellers, the big question remains, what is a library at a time when the printed word seems to be receding in importance, Starbucks and the big chain bookstores have to a large extent supplanted the role of the public library as a place to read, think, browse, and be with others in your community?
Gone are the days when we had a respectable figure set upon a raised platform and keep a keen eye on all who access the library, keeping rules such as silence and discipline in mind. To be honest school kids are more eager to go to an internet cafe where someone with the most outrageous fashion sense greets you, than to visit local libraries that can seem musty and decrepit. Many adults now do research at home or work that they once did at the library. Too many big city libraries have allowed themselves to be virtually taken over by the homeless, the mentally disturbed and others whose presence makes many other people feel threatened, nervous or simply not wanted. And budget cuts have left too many libraries with collections that are thin, old and irrelevant. And to add to that institution themselves are almost instantaneously upgrading to the cyber library, as one may assume it to be.
In the end, however the financial and brick and mortar questions are resolved, the future of libraries will be as much a matter of pace as of physical appeal. The Internet revolution represents a ratcheting up in the pace of human life, a quickening of everything from work productivity to leisure time choices. The idea of settling into a comfy chair for a long read will of course survive for some people, but will seem archaic to others. On the brighter side libraries are starting to fight back, updating their look, relaxing age-old taboos to allow food and drinks into reading areas, and trying to learn lessons about architecture and presentation so that they can create a modern yet peaceful ambience for book lovers. Libraries will have to react both as a conservator of the greatest human traditions, pointing the way for an electronically minded generation to see what’s different and unique about books, and as a leader in finding ways to turn essentially solitary online existences into activities that involve direct human contact. That’s a powerful role that libraries played in the socialization and modernization of past generations of readers, and it’s a role that libraries must embrace in new ways.
There can be no replacement to the charm of being surrounded by books, and groups of people breaking into whispers as they sort out the books they would love to read. There can be no replacement to the charm of that first crush one has while searching for an article to read as we meet someone special. Reading books cannot be replaced by computers completely as the joy we get from books is unmatched. The best we can hope for is that both the world of books and cyber reading find a balance so that old charm can interact with modern technology. As for the question we begin with, it is only for us to understand the balance and redefine the charming spirit of The Library