When discussing whether libraries will weather shifts in technology, librarians who have been on the scene longer (OK, only slightly longer) than I have like to mention how everyone was predicting our demise when the Internet came along in the ‘90s Instead, libraries added free access to the Internet to their missions, and in the process have helped millions bridge the digital divide. Anyone who’s been in a library recently will likely attest that they are busy, vital places. Nonetheless, whether libraries are obsolete is a question that is perennially raised. I think the necessity of public libraries will continue because of several factors.
People are still reading. Although we like to say people are dumber than ever, nobody is reading, and we’re all going to go to that warm place in a hand basket -- somehow more books are being borrowed than ever. Last year more than 200,000 items were checked out of the Kershaw County Public Library. I don’t know if this actually means more people are reading or whether more people are turning to us in the bad economy (maybe both), but regardless, I don’t think reading will stop. Let’s hope not. Reading makes us smarter, not only by the facts conveyed but also by forcing us to think. This is good for everyone. We all need smarter neighbors. Reading also makes us feel better. It’s a great stress reliever by allowing us to escape into a different perspective. We all need less stressed neighbors. For children, reading is essential. We all will need better neighbors in the future. Libraries will stick around because most people can’t afford all the books they need -- especially if you have a 4-year-old that loves books (trust me). I should add that libraries will stick around only if collectively we continue to understand that libraries make better neighbors, and that is better for everyone.
What about e-books? Are libraries still going to be around now that everyone and his brother got an e-reader for Christmas? Well, even if you have one of those devices, chances are you still won’t be able to afford all the books you need. Check out the library’s website (www.kershawcountylibrary.org). We’ve joined a consortium called Jasmine that provides e-book and downloadable audiobooks for checkout. You will need a library card, which you’ll have to get in person at the library, but after that, if you’re happy with your fancy little device, you need never cross through the door again. (Thank you, by the way, to the Friends of the Library, who footed the bill for this venture.)
E-books? There go the death bells again. Will libraries become totally virtual? Again, I doubt it, probably because people still need a place like a library to go. Aside from the folks who say (at least for now) that they still prefer the printed page, many of us need (as Ernest Hemingway put it) a clean, well-lighted place. That may sound superficial, but having a common space for everyone, especially one aimed at self improvement, is good for communities -- and I think most people recognize that.
I’ll admit that my prediction that libraries will survive is perhaps, somewhat defensive. Who among us who enjoys what they do, wants to think that it will end? My prediction is also unselfishly hopeful. I am sincere when I say that we’re all better off for having public libraries, whether we use them personally or not. Libraries will certainly evolve, as they have been, but hopefully I’ll be a public library patron (one way or another) with my grandchildren.