Libraries, Take 2

Mom & Adam both posted excellent comments on my Libraries as Endangered Species post, and I’ve been thinking about it enough over the past couple of days that instead of putting in my own comment on that thread, I wanted to start a new post.

One of the things that both mentioned is interesting, and something that (almost) everyone agrees is a baseline for the function of a library: to insure some level of information access to every resident (citizen?) of the US with some level of privacy. Adam correctly notes that most of the substitute goods that are taking the place of the library (broadband, Amazon, etc.) are generally expensive.

So I’m on board with this: a basic, non-negotiable function of public libraries in America should be to provide free & private information access to anyone.

But I think that isn’t enough.

I feel like that boils public libraries down into something that is functional, but not inspirational, not liberating, not empowering, not community-building. I feel like information access — through a rack of magazines, or a set of books, or the screen of an Internet terminal — only delivers on maybe 10% of the promise of libraries. Libraries can be more, and I think that in previous years they have been more. They’ve been places where people gather — community groups, author lectures, your city council, school groups. They’ve been places where people reach out to others in the community — the Bookmobile, for instance. They’ve been places where people are entertained — story time for kids, reading individually, etc.

So here’s what I’m struggling with. It seems to me that we live in an extremely utilitarian time. We only tally up measurable outcomes; we only use tax dollars or electoral leverage to implement things that are strictly legislated. I think that public libraries can & should be more than devolving into physical access terminals for information — but I guess that I’m not quite sure how to describe that or how to head towards there in today’s climate.

Here’s what Tom Friedman said in his most recent book The World is Flat that’s his message to his daughter who’s just gone off to college:

“While your lives have been powerfully shaped by 9/11, the world needs you to be forever the generation of 11/9 [when the Berlin Wall fell] — the generation of strategic optimists, the generation with more dreams than memories, the generation that wakes up each morning and not only imagines that things can be better but also acts on that imagination every day.

I think that maybe imagination should be one of the organizing principles for public libraries. Helping everyone to build their imaginations and to act on them. That’s what I’m going to start thinking about for my Board of Trustees application — let me know what you think…

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