Can the Public Library (and Democracy) Survive?

According to the study, the steepest decline in readership—twenty-eight percent since 1982—was found among eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds. That could be due largely to increased reading on the web, which is hardly the same as illiteracy. But if people are getting most of their information from the Internet, where bright screens and blinking ads make it unpleasant to absorb stories of length, then we are in trouble. Reading online is simply different than reading on paper: It tires out the eyes, and encourages scanning rather than lingering. There is also a tendency, with this active medium, to be in a hurry—we want to move on, get to the next page or site—which is why web pages are often composed of short, multiple bits of information. So, while the Internet provides a reading experience that is a mile wide and an inch deep, the library offers selections and opportunities that are a mile wide and a mile deep. There is real serenity to be found in rooms lined with books, good and bad, old and new, where we sit surrounded by the collected knowledge and history of civilization. Inside the library, we are encouraged to stick around and explore and spontaneously discover—to think. Even if we walk through its doors only once a year, it’s crucial that our profound collective memory be maintained.

Of course, nowadays, books are no longer enough. Libraries have evolved into “information centers,” which means information in forms beyond those weighty volumes imprinted with cryptic Dewey decimal numbers. To that end, there is not a single thing that’s depressing about Hennepin County’s new, state-of-the-art Brookdale library. It’s located in Brooklyn Center, a diverse inner-ring suburb. Open since last May and designed by Abraham, Buetow, and Associates, the building is airy, with lots of glass and a whimsical roof shaped like a squashed cake.

Inside, amid comfy stuffed chairs, the clientele moved to and fro with armloads of books. When an older woman wearing a purple knit cap fed a pile of paperbacks into the book-return slot, a recorded male voice responded, “Thanks for using the library.” A bookish boy with straw-yellow hair and wire-rimmed glasses browsed the history section while a librarian guided him, creating a scene that would have sent Norman Rockwell scrambling for a brush. Two black girls slouched silently at a table in the teen area, engrossed in science texts. (Libraries these days all seem to have snappily designed but somewhat wrongheaded sections for teenagers—in browsing through the teen CD collection, I found Jewel and––sorry, middle-aged Boss fans––loads of Bruce Springsteen.) When I witnessed a small boy actually begging his mother to stay “just five minutes more,” I realized that I hadn’t felt so optimistic about humanity since before the last presidential election.

Taking part in the overall congeniality were rows of people of all races sitting in front of banks of new Dell flat-screen monitors attached to high-speed web connections. Some offered home pages in various languages: Hmong, Khmer, Russian, Somali, Spanish, and Vietnamese. These people had business to take care of, and they either couldn’t or preferred not to take care of it at home. It’s easy to assume that everyone has a computer and an Internet connection, but that’s simply not the case. Hadley, responding to those who think libraries are bound to go the way of leech therapy and Roman bathhouses, said the digital age “won’t transform the basic role of the library, which is about promoting knowledge and literacy. It’s just changing how we do that. We are playing an incredibly important role in terms of pure access. The digital divide is very serious.”

As always, librarians have stepped into the role of discerning gatekeeper—especially useful in the online world, which can seem a bit like, well, a Roman bathhouse. Janet Leick, who until January was interim library director for Hennepin County, proudly noted that libraries have created databases of reliable web information for research and homework. “We have pulled together websites that our librarians have examined and know the sources and authenticity of, and created subject databases. Coming into the e-library, you have access to all these databases.” She said use of this information has increased twenty-two percent over the past year or so, and use of the library’s own website and online catalog has gone up even more—thirty-one and seventy percent, respectively.

Google caused a sensation recently when it promised to further expand the virtual library idea by scanning and posting online millions of books from research institutions like Harvard—at least older titles whose copyrights have expired. Yet even this amazing development will not eliminate the need for librarians and brick and mortar buildings. Ever try to read an entire book on a computer screen? And what if Google someday decides to charge for access to all those digital files?

In the U.S. and Europe during the 1800s, when libraries became popularized and expanded beyond the collections of philosophers, aristocrats, and academics, the big thinkers of the day determined that widespread access to books—made possible by improved printing technologies—would bring nothing but good to society. They argued that reading would introduce the “radical poor” into a culture of decency and prosperity, and allow them to better understand and accept the principles of capitalism. According to this new wisdom, enlightenment would save all humankind, no longer just the elite. Said the British trade unionist Francis Place, “As a man’s understanding is directed to some laudable pursuit, his desire for information will increase; he will become decent in his conduct and language, sober, discreet … such a man will frequently rise as the uninformed man sinks.” Others argued that reading offered regular people an escape from everyday drudgery, a means of reflection and appreciation that would form the very foundation of a civil and altruistic society.

Dukes and popes once built public libraries to influence general opinion, amass power, or improve their legacies. (American presidents still do this, post-administration.) Modern libraries fulfill a very different purpose. They belong to the public, serving as education and community centers, information hubs, hangouts and study halls, living rooms, or even coffee shops, without the volcanic hisses of steaming milk. They are the ultimate “third place,” a crucial alternative to both home and work. They are also, like parks and schools, a binding force in society. As the life of the individual becomes more private and solitary, working from home, playing computer games late into the night, ordering everything from sofas to pizzas online—Why go to the library when I can have a book delivered to my door? you might ask—our society becomes fragmented. Public places are where we see one another and adjust to living together. We develop genuine, shared experiences by interacting with each other in a broader community.

The industrialist Andrew Carnegie built thousands of libraries at the turn of the twentieth century, mostly throughout the United States and the British Isles. It’s possible that he sought historical redemption for the rough manner in which some of his factory workers were treated. But the main reason for this burst of altruism was that Carnegie, a Scottish immigrant who scraped his way to the top, believed that education and assimilation were necessary in order for immigrants to succeed in American society, which he deemed a meritocracy. In his mind, libraries provided the perfect, public opportunity for anyone with “good within them and ability and ambition to develop it” to become prosperous and even unabashedly rich. “In a public library,” Carnegie once wrote, “men could at least share cultural opportunities on a basis of equality.” In other words, with access to books, character alone would determine one’s destiny.

While our society acts less like a meritocracy than it used to, Carnegie’s ideas about libraries are still valid, especially their importance to the large number of immigrants moving to Minnesota and other states. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than thirty percent of Minneapolis and St. Paul residents are nonwhite. Sixteen percent are foreign-born. Around twenty percent of Twin Citizens speak a language other than English at home. And there stands the library, with books and newspapers and computer homepages in a dozen different languages, with English-language learning groups, and computer classes in Spanish and Russian and Hmong.

State Senator Steve Kelley of Hopkins, a rare champion of the library system, noted that since St. Louis Park is home to a large number of Russians, “That library developed a Russian-language collection for those folks. Some of those immigrants can stay in touch with the culture of their former countries and also get helped along in adapting to the culture of the U.S.”

Pages: 1 2 3