Are Libraries an Endangered Species?

I got a library card for the Sunnyvale Public Library yesterday, after 6 years of living here. Cynically, I got it because I’m in the process of writing up an application to be on the Board of Trustees of the library here, and it seemed like I should probably be a member of the library first. (Although I’ve given literally hundreds of books to SPL over the past few years, I haven’t actually gotten a card.) More optimistically, I wanted to spend some time thinking about the role of libraries in general, and this one specifically, in our lives. And of course, with a new baby on the way, I wanted to think some about what the world will look like as s/he grows up with respect to public libraries.

I think most everyone who reads this knows that my mom is a Professional Librarian, and lately works for Ingram Books helping libraries develop their collections. Add to that I live in a family that basically reveres books. My grandmother ran her own bookstore for about the whole time I was growing up (I used to love visiting) and works in a bookstore even now, in her eighties. My mom & dad always have had books in their hands and shelves full of them. And I read a little bit compulsively — it’s almost a nervous tic for me. (That’s the subject of another post that I want to do.)

Having said that, I don’t actually think that libraries are really in the book business — I think they haven’t been for a long time. With newspapers, magazines, audio, video, DVDs, software, and lately the Internet, it seems to me that they’re in the information access business. But that misses the point, too, I think — because as I was there this week, there were lots of different things going on — kids reading together, parents showing their kids how to look up information, lots of things.

But I have to be honest. I don’t use the library very much at all. For my information needs, I pretty much use my setup at home. For books, I buy an obscene number of them from Amazon or Borders (and get a huge amount from Mom as well). And when I walk around the library — any library — I just get the sense that they’re behind the rest of the world and struggling to keep up. When I see things in the library that I think are especially current, I always think to myself, “I’m surprised they have that here.” Like the new Tom Friedman book. Or the new Alias season on DVD. I wish I didn’t have that reaction, but I do.

I think there are a lot of things conspiring to make the role of the library a tricky one to figure out. The emergence of the Internet. The incredible volume of media sharing happening online. Broadband to the home. Starbucks as a “third space” to meet & hang out. Tapped out local & state budgets. The Patriot Act.

I don’t think that libraries should just be places where folks without access get access. I don’t think that they should just be places where people can get books or DVDs without buying them. But I’m having some trouble figuring out exactly what they should be. What they can be.

I believe that, along with public education, public libraries stand as one of the great & startling legacies of the founders of our country (not just the founding fathers, but a broader set than that). I think there is a place for community-based (as opposed to school-based) centers for learning & communication. I hope that libraries, as they continue to respond to pressure from every side, can figure out how to be all that they can be.

If you’ve got any ideas, give a holler. I’ve got to put something smart into my application in the next couple of weeks. 🙂

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