top of page

Saving Libraries

A Practical Proposal

By Roy M. Carlisle

My memory is vivid. I was peddling my old bicycle down State Street in Salem, OR. My basket was full of books, and they were due that day. My mother couldn’t drive me downtown to return the books because Dad took the car to work. She finally consented to let me cycle clear across town and return the books myself, even though I was only 10 (I am 64 today) and had not gone to the downtown Salem Public Library alone before.

I was stoked. Not only could I return the books, but I could hang out, browse, and discover something new to read. On that summer afternoon I discovered a series of biographies about famous men and women in American history. My love of biography began that day, after I picked George Washington Carver off the shelf, a scientist who discovered more than 300 uses for the peanut and read much of the book that afternoon while sitting at a library table.

I could tell you many such stories, as I was one of those boys who discovered books and libraries early and have loved them passionately throughout my life.

Now, because of funding issues, the future of public libraries is a matter of serious concern in most communities across America. Many people doubt the relevance of maintaining houses for printed books, CDs, even DVDs, because of the digital revolution and the increased distribution of books and media to e-readers and home media centers. Those who do passionately believe in the value of a community-based public library are defending libraries mostly on the basis of their “community services” function.

Trusting in Time-Honored Functions

Neal Peirce, in a Washington Post article, says he wants to maintain libraries as a place where immigrants can study to become citizens, and then he says he also believes that libraries can get people “into reading habits.” I assume he is underscoring that they are places where print and digital books can be obtained without cost. For both these things to happen, though, he says, the libraries must continue to become gathering centers that set out the welcome mat to everyone in the community.

Charles Simic, in his New York Review of Books article “A Country Without Libraries,” sees the library as a magical place where students are turned into readers. He contrasts the patience and sustained attention that a book requires with the Internet’s “quick, distracting activity in which one searches for a specific subject, finds it, and then reads about it—often by skipping a great deal of material and absorbing only pertinent fragments.” He believes libraries are essential to maintaining reflective reading skills and urges us all to consider the consequences of losing this particular public institution.

Daniel M. Russell, a technology writer, states in the Palo Alto Weekly online that libraries are “places where information is available, not just sitting on shelves, but in hands and under eyes, with places to work and people to help in the process of accessing and understanding an increasingly complex world.”

Other studies show that public libraries are often where the economically disadvantaged go for access to the Internet and email. These and other pleas for preserving the library provide valid and compelling reasons for maintaining public libraries even as those venerable institutions reassess their role in a community.

Harbingers to Heed

As a book publisher, I am sympathetic to all these arguments, pleas, and goals, although I would argue that it’s parents and teachers reading to children and sharing their love of books who make children into readers for a new generation, and not institutions. But the real issue is that we are a country in fiscal crisis, and not just at the federal level. In Denver, the necessity for a $2.5 million budget cut in library funding recently led officials to contemplate closing many branches, and this is not an isolated incident. Libraries are closing and will close.

At the same time, with students schooled to access information via the Internet and Wi-Fi increasingly available, libraries as community centers will become less viable and interesting to younger people. Students who access information in homes and at school will not need a library as a physical location. Right now, of course, you can still argue that not everyone has Internet access or the ability to evaluate online information. But 97 percent of American homes now have TV, and we will see a similar growth pattern in Internet usage, and in accuracy.

We already know that while 42 percent of adults over age 65 use the Internet only occasionally, 89 percent of adults aged 18 to 29 use it regularly. Which direction do you think these numbers are going in?

And a peer-reviewed study in Nature magazine that compared fee-based Encyclopedia Britannica to the “open sourced” free Wikipedia found just eight serious errors, such as general misunderstandings of vital concepts, in the articles. Of those, four came from each site. The study also discovered a series of factual errors, omissions, or misleading statements. All told, Wikipedia had 162 such problems, while Britannica had 123. So who do you think will own the future in this area of information competition?

The Specialization Solution

Although I think many solutions will be considered and offered in the coming years about how to cope with the alarming loss of public libraries, I believe one option is viable for larger public libraries. It might be less feasible for small branches, but since a lack of funding will eliminate jobs there anyway, I am focusing less on them.

Today, most large public libraries don’t contain enough information on any one topic to satisfy research needs in depth. But why, you ask, should a public library satisfy research needs? Don’t we have academic, special, and corporate libraries to fulfill that function?

Yes, we do, but, putting it simply, I think public libraries need to become more specialized in order to survive. Specialization is often key to eliciting donor interest, bringing in funds, and building a reputation that extends beyond the immediate community.

Models for this already exist. Many states have a department of transportation library, but Minnesota has built a transportation library that is the envy of other states and even other countries. Similarly, Ward and Massey Libraries at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, AL, have a world-class collection that specializes in materials and books about the Austrian School of economics and classical liberalism. And a wide variety of academic, corporate, and private libraries are also highly specialized.

Although the list of special libraries is long, it is probably not as long as it should be, given the current exponential growth of information. EMC Corporation, a world leader in information infrastructure solutions, announced recently, “The Digital Universe is expected to double in size every 18 months. In 2012, five times as much digital information will be created versus 2008.” And the U.S. Census Bureau says that 77 percent of adults now use the Internet occasionally.

How can a public library keep up with this growth of information and with the increased demand for information when its staff, resources, and budgets are being slashed? It can’t. So while a public library may continue to have a role as a community center, or as an archive for a particular geographic area, its role as a broad-based, in-depth information center is limited, even frighteningly limited.

But specialization can allow these public institutions to reacquire distinct status in a community as specialists in content.

If you knew that there was a library in your community that had the largest selection of children’s books in the whole state or even in a larger region, and you wanted to expose your children to that literature, would you make the effort to visit that library, either in person or virtually? Yes, I think you would. Or if there were a library that contained the largest collection of materials—print and digital—on the Civil War, and you were interested in that subject, then you would want to access that library’s holdings.

Technology and funding are the main ingredients for this kind of specialized content-oriented library. And while public funding is declining at a rapid rate, many philanthropists and foundations are open to funding technology-based initiatives. With new strategies for increased private funding, we can consider alternative ways of reimagining the library of the future. The shift from community centers to content-oriented specialized institutions is one way of reconceiving the library.

Only Imagine

To think about this another way, start by asking yourself where you would invest your own money. Would you want to be able to find a specialized library that had every book, every DVD, every Web site tracked, and every ounce of information on your favorite subject? And would you want to take advantage of technology to get this information in your own home? I know I would. And I might even be willing to pay a small fee for that kind of access.

I hope we can envision viable futures for libraries sooner rather than later, including the one offered here and many others. And then maybe I will discover that there is a library somewhere with a comprehensive collection of books and materials on the history of book publishing in the United States.

*Also published in the Independent Book Publishers Association magazine, The Independent  

bottom of page