Saving Our Public Libraries in a Paperless World

4 min read
  • Government

With all the emphasis lately on paperless, ebooks, the Internet, and so on, it may seem that the humble community library that we all grew up with is under attack. But there’s plenty of evidence that the library is changing with the times and has as big a role in our society as ever—and it’s getting some staunch defenders. We wanted to do our part.

Faced with tight budgets and cutbacks, local and state governments have been cutting library budgets, even as the economy is improving. Some detractors are even saying that in the age of the Internet, people don’t need public libraries any more.

But a Pew Research Center Library Services Study conducted last fall notes that the vast majority of Americans consider public libraries to be an important part of the community. 90 percent of Americans say the closing of their local public library would damage their community, while 67 percent said it would affect them and their families.

“This isn’t a case of people ‘valuing’ the gym they never go to,” writes Svati Kirsten Narula  in the Atlantic. “The majority of Americans have either visited a public library or used a public library website in the past twelve months.”

In fact, the Internet makes libraries more important than ever, because the library becomes the primary resource for people who don’t have computers or the Internet at home. Libraries also become a resource for learning how to use computers and the Internet, such as through free or low-cost classes for the community. According to the Pew study, 58 percent of respondents said that access to the Internet and computers was important to them, while more than 50 percent said library services offered them help finding a job or with access to government services. And 96 percent of Pew respondents agreed with the statement, “Because it provides free access to materials and resources, the public library plays an important role in giving everyone a chance to succeed.”

Indeed, public libraries aren’t able to meet the demand for Internet and computer access, according to a 2012 American Library Association study that focused on public library funding and technology access, Narula writes. Minorities are particularly interested in ways that libraries can help them learn to use technology, Pew found.

“In the ’20s and ’30s, immigrants used libraries to read newspapers in their native language and learn English,” writes Bobby Atkinson about a library in Nampa, Idaho—one of the increasingly rare cities that is actually building a new library rather than shutting branches down. “Today, many people use their local library to learn a new language for a new era—the language of technology.”

Devices such as Kindles and other electronic book readers don’t abrogate the need for the library, either. While 28 percent of American adults ages 18 and older read an ebook in the past year, up from 17 percent in 2011, 69 percent read a printed book, a figure unchanged from the previous year, according to Pew. Only 4 percent of readers are “ebook only” readers. And another Pew study found that ebook readers actually read more books—print and electronic—than people who read just print books.

Even for ebook readers, many libraries offer the ability to borrow ebooks—something that a lot of library patrons don’t realize. What often stymies the digital borrowing is the digital rights management (DRM) of the books. DRM and the business models based on it make loaning ebooks more challenging for libraries through methods such as limiting use by someone other than the primary purchaser, enforcing a “pay per use” model, placing time limits on the use of content, and eliminating “fair use” and other policies that have traditionally been used in the academic arena. Jessamyn West, a library technologist in rural Vermont, writes in the blog, “The digital divide is real and formidable. The vendor-based silos of information which are inaccessible without a payment or a password vex us as much as, if not more than, they vex you.”

Bureaucrats who’ve attempted to cut library budgets and eliminate branches have gotten an earful from library patrons, as well as from the librarians themselves. Supporters are using innovative, low-cost, guerilla tactics such as dressing up as zombies or pretending to throw book-burning parties to draw attention to libraries and gain other members.

Most recently, the photography blog “Humans of New York” drew attention to this issue when—in its quest to highlight ordinary New York City residents—it interviewed a man outside the New York Public Library (NYPL) who used his 10 seconds of fame to highlight the plight of the library system, which is facing branch cuts. More than 49,000 Facebook shares later, the NYPL Central Library Plan is in the news again, in a city where, until 2013, library budgets had been cut every year since 2008, and branches closed after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy remain unopened.

“I have not seen a single letter on what the exit plan is: what happens in four years’ time, when the cuts will have succeeded, and the economy gets back to ‘normal’ again,” writes Caitlin Moran about proposed library closures in the U.K. “Unless the government has developed an exit strategy for the cuts, and insisted councils not sell closed properties, by the time we get back to ‘normal’ again, our Victorian and post-war and 1960s red-brick boxy libraries will be coffee shops and pubs. No new libraries will be built to replace them. These libraries will be lost forever.”

Paperless is good. Libraryless is not.

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