Marble lion outside NY Public Library, Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia
Public libraries have been a staple of American life since Ben Franklin helped found the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731. He and his friends started their membership-based library to pool their resources and acquire and curate a collection of books and papers. In its founding document, the Company could lend books to non-members if they put up a security deposit. The deposit was returned when the books came back.
The first modern taxpayer-supported public library, as we know it, was established in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in 1833. The larger Boston Public Library opened its doors to the public two decades later. Public libraries spread across the US in the 19th and 20th century, often endowed by wealthy patrons like Andrew Carnegie, who founded over 2500 libraries in the US, England, Canada, and around the world. As an immigrant working boy, he had benefitted from an informal lending library in Pittsburg, and he wanted to repay the favor to the next generation.
Today, libraries suffer from a poverty of riches. The rise of the internet, mobile computing, and steaming means that screens and smart phones are crowding out books and stacks. The world’s literature has never been as accessible. It’s so convenient now to download or stream a book – either to read or to listen – that centralized depositories of physical books are becoming endangered, like the lions outside the New York Public Library. They’re not being actively hunted so much as their habitat has been destroyed.
This isn’t the first time libraries have declined. Ancient Rome had a series of prominent public libraries stretching from Spain to Parthia, where scrolls and parchments could be stored and accessed, only to see this system decline and disappear after Rome fell. The burning of the famous Library of Alexandria may not have been an intentional act of arson committed by religious zealots, but an accident that capped years of neglect.
Painting: Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Destruction (1836). Source: Wikimedia
Will our modern system of public libraries suffer the same fate? Funding for libraries is always difficult, but the current era seems especially challenging. In many ways, libraries in the mobile/streaming/e-book era are facing the same issues as retail stores in the Amazon age: people still need to read and learn, just like we need to shop for clothes, food, and household goods. The challenge is to make the experience convenient, enjoyable, and rewarding.
Libraries should learn from successful retail responses to Amazon: commit themselves to omnichannel services, like e-books, e-readers, MP3 devices, and video. They should use their spaces for as what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls a “third place,” neither work nor home, where socializing over ideas is encouraged. Starbucks plans to close thousands of locations. A former Starbucks already has a social identity. Could town libraries use those spaces? We need public meeting spaces that also have secure, free wireless internet.
Photo: Sven2512. Source: Wikimedia
Like successful retailers, libraries should also use social media to increase their buzz. There are millions of kids who are experts at creating viral content on Snapchat and Instagram. The next generation can be a resource, not just a target audience. Most of all, libraries need to be entrepreneurial and experimental, expanding what works and discarding what doesn’t. Digital competition means “failing fast” is the best way to succeed.
Everything that lives must adapt to changing times and circumstances. They have an outstanding legacy of public service, they enjoy a special tax status, and they still receive donations, bequests, and public funding. In an age where big data only becomes useful information when it’s properly curated and organized, libraries are more important than ever.
People support what they know they need. When libraries demonstrate they’re indispensable, and not just the legacy of a benevolent 19th century industrialist, they’ll get the resources they need to remain relevant in the 21st.
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