With so much focus on the plight of libraries, a number of options have been proposed for libraries to reinvent themselves in an effort to keep up with the changing face of book consumption in the digital era. Some library systems have gone so far as to establish 21st century models for libraries, including everything from computer terminals, classroom and meeting spaces, green energy community gardens, and more. Some reports even point to libraries that have literally zero physical books, opting for everything patrons consume to be digitized and shareable.
With articles like that of Christopher John Farley’s for the WallStreetJournal.com SepakEasy section that accurately asks if we even need libraries anymore, public perception of the dusty old print volumes stored Dewey Decimal-style in a “silence only” moldy building may be the norm for too many people. At the same time, a committee formed by Connecticut special law has now officially recommended that the state take almost no action at this time to boost digital lending in state libraries, recommending instead that they observe the digital publishing industry for now.
But as libraries work to reimagine their roles in communities and demonstrate their worth, perhaps it is the concept of library patrons that needs some clarification as well.
A Pew Internet report last year found that slightly more than half of respondents had visited a library or library website in the past year, down to 54% from 59% the year before. Yet, 90% of those same respondents stated that libraries are vital to the overall health of communities.
Which is it? Do consumers really want libraries in their communities that they don’t intend to use? And if so, why?
One possible explanation is the increasing awareness that libraries serve a very important role in maintaining the fabric of society, especially for underserved demographics of the population. It’s almost as if citizens liken libraries to a homeless shelter or soup kitchen; they adamantly agree that their towns should definitely have one, even if they themselves do not plan to ever need the services.
With more consumers building their own private libraries of digital books, music, movies, and audiobooks on their devices, the need to borrow someone else’s content may have diminished. Have most public library patrons become too wealthy to need a library? Or has the price of books and content come down to the point that it is easier, more convenient, and affordable enough for most people to just press the buy button instead of waiting to borrow a title?
If that’s actually the case, then consumers have demonstrated the real power of libraries, which is access to books, disruptive thought, and literacy for all of society. It’s astounding that voters would support libraries that they don’t intend to use, and speaks to the need and the desire to provide even more funding for these institutions to ensure that they can continue in the role that citizens have put them in, at least until ongoing efforts are successful to change the common perception of a library in the minds of its non-users.