This piece was written by our very own Shirley Rash and published as an editorial in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette on August 12, 2018.
A recent opinion piece published by Forbes advocated that free public libraries be replaced with Amazon Bookstores. The online article has been ably refuted elsewhere, but the writer, an economics professor, raised important questions: What exactly does a public library do, what value does it provide to its community, and what is the library’s role in the future?
Librarians should welcome these questions. As someone who has spent 10 years working for my local library and serving as a member of our Friends of the Library board, I know there are excellent responses to all of these questions.
Some of the answers may surprise even the most frequent library users because libraries are highly adaptable. They continually change to reflect new technology and community needs. Libraries offer books, yes, but today they do so much more.
To illustrate: The Berryville Public Library where I work circulates approximately 100,000 books and other items each year. We offer more than 500 live programs annually, welcoming more than 10,000 program participants, and receive nearly 90,000 visitors yearly from a town of 5,000 residents. Audiences range from toddlers and their young parents to business owners and professionals, home-schoolers and public school teachers, teens, college students and senior adults.
Being adaptable has led to year-over-year increases in our library usage for most of the past decade.
You don’t even have to enter the library today. We offer mobile services to those who are in nursing homes or homebound. Online apps let you enjoy remote access to free e-books.
Even when the library is closed, people park outside to use its free Wi-Fi service to read, conduct business, or update their social media accounts. This may seem trivial, but the local library is an important resource for people who cannot afford high-speed Internet access or live in rural areas with little or no Internet service available at any cost.
Some of these services were unheard of a decade ago but have become commonplace as libraries adapt to serve their communities, always for free. If libraries were not adaptable, they would have gone the way of the dodo and dinosaur with the advent of any number of technological advances.
When I began working at the library, I heard predictions that e-books would end the need for libraries. These prophecies have not come to pass because libraries, as always, adapted. Though print books remain the most popular option for readers, libraries integrated e-books into their collections and offer them for free. Some libraries also lend e-readers to cardholders.
One of the emerging benefits of libraries is in economic advancement for individuals and communities. To illustrate, the Berryville Library offers proctoring services for college exams and professional certifications, access to computers and Internet service for people who are applying for jobs, and use of specialized databases and other services for businesses, all at no cost to the user.
Georgetown Public Policy Review reported in January that many public libraries are going further by offering free market research, business plan templates, maker spaces, skills training and other programs to emerging entrepreneurs, small businesses and large employers. The Georgetown report overflows with testimonials from those who see the economic value of libraries.
Public libraries also provide a valuable but intangible service of being safe, welcoming places for everyone in the community to learn, grow and socialize. We hear from our patrons what national researchers hear all across America: public libraries are a trusted point of contact and a community hub that provide a much-needed source of human interaction.
A big part of why we can provide these services in this way is because the public library is free and open to all. We don’t have a loitering ordinance. You don’t have to buy something to enjoy the library. You can stay here all day without spending a dime, for all we care.
Being free is the beauty of the local library and may be the major issue that libraries face: a lack of sufficient funds and resources to keep up with the latest technologies and provide our communities with all the evolving services that are needed.
Though many people appreciate their local library, a recent study conducted by the OCLC and American Library Association reveals a softening of support for funding them. It seems that many voters are not aware of how deeply dependent libraries are on local funding. Inadequate funding doesn’t stop libraries from doing tremendous work, but makes the work a lot harder.
Yes, the economics professor’s suggestion to defund public libraries might save local governments some money, but at what cost to the quality of life for the people and the community?
The importance of libraries is not lost on many Americans. The Pew Research Center found that nearly half of all American adults report using their public library, and the highest usage rates are among millennials. These numbers suggest that libraries and books will remain relevant as long as libraries are able to adapt to new challenges and technologies.
Instead of exploring ways to end the good work libraries do in our communities, we should be finding ways to help them do their work even better. If library critics, like the author of the Forbes article, are serious about helping communities, they should advocate for companies to dedicate more money and resources to local libraries and make gifts of their own.
Nonetheless, it is a mistake to assume that the needs of libraries and their communities can all be remedied by a corporate donor or a generous benefactor. The majority of funding for public libraries has always come from local sources. Public libraries support their communities in myriad ways, and it is only fair that communities support their local libraries in return.