What Good is a Library These Days?

I am intrigued with the ongoing discussion over the future of the Nobles County Library.  As a professor and an author, I find myself both using and making contributions to libraries as part of my everyday job.  I’ve also, for better or worse, spent a lot of time in libraries: 4-8 hours a day during grad school.

I’m not a civil engineer or a city planner, so I’ll withhold my amateur opinion on the question of location.  But, working for various academic institutions in the last five years, I can speak a bit about the future and purpose of libraries.  I believe we need to ask: Will a library be relevant for the next 30 years?

Nobles County Library, photo (c) Daily Globe

I use the Nobles County Library—I was there on Tuesday actually.  I also remember going there as a child.  Thirty years ago, a library was different.  It was our entire world of knowledge.  If a book wasn’t at the local library, it practically didn’t exist.  It’s not that way today.  The same information is now a simple Google search away.  From my iPhone, I can order nearly any book in the universe and have it in two days.  If I can’t wait, I can buy it, or check it out, NOW on a Kindle.  Sure, we still check out books at the library—why buy a book when you can check it out for free—but the local library is no longer the only option, and by no means the entire world.

Many people are predicting the demise of the book.  Bookstores are disappearing.  Barnes & Noble is struggling.  Physical books are going digital.  Publishers find digital books more profits.  For consumers, it’s cheaper.  And, we prefer our information in headlines and YouTube how-to clips rather than the laborious task of reading (are you tired yet?).

With books becoming dinosaurs and communities tight on money, one might ask: Why build a library at all?  I see libraries is perhaps more important than ever before.  But, the library of the future–the library still relevant in 30 years–is dramatically different.  We need to rid ourselves of view of the library as a quiet place filled with books where you get yelled at for talking too loudly.  More importantly, the library of the future is no longer about books.  Yes, you read that right.  The library is no longer about books.

Universities are typically on the cutting edge of library innovation and, in my nine years at Pepperdine University, I saw our library change dramatically.  They divested book collections, tore out bookshelves, installed computers, put up flatscreen TVs running announcements, built community spaces, and added coffee bars.  Universities are building the library of the future, and here are three ways they are changing:

Meeting Space – There are few places anymore that allow for community meeting space.  In the last several decades, we’ve designed our homes, offices, and cities around the individual, and to the detriment of community.  We wanted private offices and fences around our homes.  In recent years, there’s been a shift back to redeveloping community spaces.  Companies like Pixar attribute their creative success to building collaborative environments where people bump into each other and are forced to meet.  At Pepperdine, nearly half our library became comfy chairs for people to meet and study together.  We added rooms for community meetings.  We even installed a coffee shop area (yes, IN the library) to encourage people to stay and mingle.  The library of the future might host town halls and even wedding receptions.  The library of the future is grand central station for community forums and civic meetings.

Google Books

Accessing the World – I am finishing writing my next book—a historical narrative.  I estimate that 75% of my research came from digitized books and newspapers ion Google Books.  I didn’t need to go to a library.  And, it was much more efficient to do my research digitally.  The other 25% of my research came from obscure physical books that only several libraries in the US had.  My local library didn’t need the book, it just needed to borrow the book from another library.  The library of the future won’t have an exhaustive collection of books; it will be a part of the networks to access any book or piece of information.  And, most importantly, it should make access available to everyone.

Specialization – If I were a New York City student writing about westward expansion of America, where would I go?  I wouldn’t expect a New York library to have original documents.  I would expect to find it at a library in Worthington, MN, a pioneering town settled furthest west on the St. Paul & Sioux City Railway.  Libraries serve a special purpose in collecting and preserving culture—history, art, and local knowledge.  The library of the future will be a specialized.  It will do one thing really well.  There’s no reason for the Nobles County Library to amass the best collection on the history of the Revolutionary War when it can instantly, digitally access an amazing collection at a library in Massachusetts.  The Nobles County Library should amass the best collection on the culture of Nobles County and Southwest Minnesota.  We need libraries to archive and preserve culture, or we will lose it.

There may be a day when we have physical libraries with no books.  The library of future won’t be about books, or even about a location, it will be about the experience.  The library will be an experience where community, information, history, art, and culture all co-mingle.  The library of the future will be an integrated experience where an artist’s display inspires a future International Festival event; where the Nobles County Historical Society informs a researcher in Oxford, England; where high school students come to study together because they like the environment.  If the next Nobles County Library looks anything like the library of the future, it’s something to be very excited about.

27 thoughts on “What Good is a Library These Days?

  1. I enjoy going to the local library. I have a Kindle, but I enjoy holding the book in my hands. So right now, the kindle is in a drawer, and a library book is on the table beside my chair.
    I would like to see the local library move the Historical museum to the Pioneer Village, move the childrens library to the basement, and expand the library into the vacant area.
    Do we really need a meeting room or a coffee area? I think not. Maybe a larger area for the computers. But I like the library that we have.

    • Thank you, Marlis. Good thoughts. The question of the where the historical museum should be will certainly draw some discussion.

  2. I agree that the libraries of the future will look very different, but I believe that libraries should still be “about books.” I hope for the children of the future that they will have the experience of their parents reading them picture books with real pages and illustrations. If story time becomes about holding up a kindle or an iphone, that will truly be sad.

    • Thanks for responding, Emily. Like you, I too prefer reading physical books–my Kindle doesn’t get much use. But I’m not sure I agree that it will be sad if story time happens on the iPhone. The essence of reading isn’t about the medium, it’s about the story. If a child reads Good Night Moon in a physical book or on a Kindle, they still read exactly the same Good Night Moon. What would be sad is if we trade reading for video–then we lose the place for imagination.

      I think the reason I prefer a physical book is because it’s what I’m familiar with. I’ve grown up holding a book with physical pages. I suspect future children may prefer digital because they will be familiar with that medium. My students can order digital textbooks now instead of physical textbooks–they’re cheaper and more efficient. I suspect we will see that trickle down as school systems look for places to save costs.

      Thanks again for your contribution to the conversation.

  3. Indeed, the author of the blog brings up a good point – what do we need a library for?

    He is a published author who has used libraries in the past. Are any of you published authors? I suspect that 99.99% of us use libraries for very mundane purposes. We are not graduate students at a university nor do we care about the writing of books. We just want to read them.

    Traditionally the library was where you went to access information. None of us who have computers and an Internet connection do that anymore. Maybe we go to the library to get some books for recreational reading. That is changing too with the electronic digitalization of everything in print.

    The author of the blog mentions some purposes which he thinks the library of the future may afford. None of them have anything to do with a library. A building for such purposes as he suggests in fact has no business even calling itself a library.

    Once you have taken the physical book out of the library, you no longer have a library. Maybe you will have a media center instead. Is that worth spending millions of dollars on? The world no longer needs libraries (except for a few very specialized research libraries). Soon everyone in the world will have an inexpensive computer and an inexpensive Internet connection which will make libraries go the way of the Dodo Bird. The idea that you need a library in the 21st century is an elitist conceit.

    • Edward,

      Thanks for responding. I list my credentials not to suggest my view is any more valuable than any other view in the community, but only to offer some basis for why I can speak to this topic. I’ve been involved various libraries in the process of innovating and I follow current conversations on the future of books.

      By your logic, our current library has no place calling itself a “library.” Library is derived from the Latin root “liber” meaning “bark,” so really a “place of bark.” Since we no longer write on bark or papyrus, and much of our modern paper is synthetic or contains cellulose from non-wood sources, then “library” is a complete misnomer. The meanings of words evolve all the time as technology changes. The library of the future is what we define it.

      And “elitist conceit?” Edwards, we we will always need places where anyone can come to access information. While we would like to think that “everyone in the world” will have cheap computers and Internet, I doubt that will be the case. I know people in Worthington who cannot afford a car, a computer, or monthly internet fees.

      • I don’t care about your credentials anymore that you should care about my credentials.

        Everyone in the world knows what a library is, except you apparently. Your word definition was beside any rational point and is not worth a response. What you want is a media center. Do not call it a library.

        If you are arguing that the best thing about a library is that it is free for everyone to use, it is a small point. The fact is that most poor folks do not ever use the library. It is a middle class institution par excellence, the same as the YMCA. As for the expense of computers and internet connections, I believe even children in our public schools are now being given individual tablets or laptop computers for their use. The electronic media is only going to get cheaper and cheaper whereas printed media is only going to get more and more expensive. What am I missing!

        I still want to know what we need libraries for? You started your blog by asking a good question and then you got sidetracked with a lot of politically correct elitist nonsense.

  4. I do agree with Jay on all his talking points. Yes, you read that’s right.

    I think if you go to Marshall, Mn and visit there public library you will see what Jay is talking about. Unless we step up to the plate in Nobles County we will be waiting for higher borrowing costs, higher construction cost, and in thirty years I still see libraries as functioning learning center.

    One more important thing is most children are introduced to books, physical books. If they aren’t then take away the the Zoo’s too, we don’t really need them either.

      • I suspect all we would find at the Marshall library is a bit more space for computers and lounge chairs … neither of which have anything to do with the core function of a library.

  5. The author of the blog mentions his experience at Pepperdine University and what the library has done there to remain relevant. It appears that the library has gotten rid of all that a college library traditionally does in order to serve the students and faculty. Might that not be because everyone now has computers and the Internet? The only library innovation I see taking place at Pepperdine is the self-extinction of the library. It will soon cease to exist altogether.

    The purposes he envisions for the library of the future are not encouraging.

    Meeting places? That can best be met by other institutions already present in society. Coffee klatches? Town halls? Wedding receptions? Lounges? I don’t see the library as an appropriate venue for any of that sort of thing.

    Accessing the world? You now do that with a computer and an Internet connection, just like the students and faculty at Pepperdine are doing. That is why the library there has become nonfunctional and irrelevant.

    Specialization? Libraries are very poor at archiving much of anything. You need a historical society and other specialized institutions for that sort of thing where you can access experts. The only thing librarians at expert at is general knowledge.

    I have yet to hear one good argument for a new library. The present library building could easily be remolded to serve whatever present day needs are determined to be appropriate for the proper limited functions of a library. The Historical Society can find a new home elsewhere in town.

    Once the printed book has passed into history, so will the library. Trying to save an obsolete institution by reconfiguring its purpose is not something that reasonable folks should be engaged in.

    • Edward,

      When is the last time you visited Pepperdine’s campus to “see” the library as suggest? Quite the contrary has happened despite all that you insist. The library at Pepperdine is thriving and it serves students and faculty better than ever. The new vision for the library is to be the center piece of campus–the place where people gather, where they hold meetings and events, where they study, and where they research. Since these innovations have happened, student and faculty use of the library has only increased.

      Meeting places: What other institutions in our society offer free public meetings places? I’ve never been invited to a meeting at city hall. Is there a meeting room the public can reserve??? Coffee shops are great, but I don’t always want to feel like I have to buy a latte just to meet people there.

      Access: Your proposition is completely false. While a lot of information is available free online, not everything is. And, really, more is not available than available. The only books available for free online are in the public domain–and a work doesn’t come into the public domain until 90 years after the author dies. What if I want a book published in the last 100 years and I don’t want to buy it? What if I want a book that hasn’t been digitized at all? For all these reasons, we need libraries.

      Specialization: Again, you are completely wrong. Librarians are not tasked with being “experts at general knowledge.” They are tasked with knowing where to find answers and information. The entire field of “library science” is dedicated to archiving and retrieval–not reciting general knowledge. Without opining on the proper place of the Historical Society, my view is that a major function of any historical society is archiving and retrieving information–old journals, old newspapers, etc. That job is be located in a library.

      Above all, I’m not arguing for or against a new physical location of a library. I’m simply suggesting that we need to have a thoughtful conversation about what the library looks like going forward, wherever that may be.

      • You stated that university libraries are creative centers of innovation and then went on to describe how the Pepperdine Library was getting rid of many of its books. To the extent that the library is doing that, it is no longer a library. Most universities have student centers where one can meet with ones peers or superiors for any number of purposes. Frankly, I do not know what you are describing when you talk about a library without books, but you are not describing any library I have ever known. It seems you just want a very nice place, at public expense, where people can meet with one another.

        Meeting places: There is no shortage of meeting places that I have ever heard about. If folks want to get together, they will find a way. In any event, creating a public palace, whatever you want to call it, for meetings is not something that most folks think is important. It most definitely is not something that a library need concern itself about.

        Access: Surely you jest. There is more available online than there is in the Library of Congress. Every book will eventually be available online, some for a slight cost, others for free. But since your library of the future is not going to have books anyway, what is your point?

        Specialization: Libraries are modest institutions that do most things in a quite amateurish fashion. Librarians do not possess any specialized knowledge and are not experts in anything. The information and retrieval aspects of being a librarian have now been completely supplanted by the computer. Even idiots know how to find information that a few years ago only librarians would know how to search and find. However, “knowing where to find answers and information” presupposes a rather extensive general knowledge. Most librarians are liberals arts majors and so have some passing knowledge of the arts and sciences. They are like lawyers that way, but without the legal specialization tacked on. Even so, the computer and the Internet has made librarians and libraries obsolete.

        Historical societies do not need public libraries. They are perfectly capable of archiving and storing whatever they dig up.

        The library you want for the future is not a library at all. It is a media center, which can be all things to all people. However, the real media center is now in our homes where we have a computer and an Internet connection. There is no argument to be made for a media canter that does not reek of a rip-off to the public purse. You want to call it a library thereby cashing in on the prestige of an honored institution going back hundreds of years.

        We either need libraries for books (primarily) or we do not. What we don’t need is a media center.

  6. Hi Jay,
    Thank you for your well-written and insightful article which reflects much of the research being conducted, such as The Pew Research Centers report of Libraries in the Digital Age. The report, in summary, shows that the majority of Americans do want public libraries to expand their digital services, yet also feel that print materials remain important in the digital age. Libraries have been and will continue to shift and adjust to the needs of our patrons. The library experience can mean something different for every patron coming through the doors. We find the needs of our patrons continually surprise and delight us as we navigate whatever topic, request, or service they are needing. Libraries continue to serve the public in a meaningful way by promoting literacy in our youth, and by providing services and programming for all ages, all ethnicities, and all socioeconomic groups. We pride ourselves on being a gathering place for people to research, create, and learn. I’m not sure if the responder stating that “Librarians do not possess any specialized knowledge and are not experts in anything” has ever been in a library. I have several librarians on staff who are educated, highly trained and skilled in various aspects of librarianship, such as Reference librarianship, Children’s librarianship, Collections Management. I hold a Master’s Degree and have 15 years experience. I’m not sure how the responder defines “specialized knowledge”, but I know I cannot have “library conversations” with just anyone due to the specialized nature of our work. We ARE seeing library usage change, but we are not seeing it decrease. I think it’s important for us to look at both national and local trends which point to the essentiality of libraries in the digital age as a bridge in the technological divide and also as a level in the intellectual playing field. We cater to all patrons and offer over 50 free services, which technology is a certainly a part, but definitely not the whole. Our numbers of new registered patrons each month and the number of people through the doors each day clearly show that our libraries are requisite to the health and well being of our community and will continue to be far into the future.

    • Dear Julie,

      Thank you for writing and thank you for the service you provide to the community. I hope my comments are helpful in starting some conversations about what our libraries will look like as they evolve to remain relevant to the next generations. You are in an exciting and innovative field, and these discussions over a new library offer a lot of potential to dream and reflect. I look forward to following developments with the Nobles County Library and watching to see what you have in store.


      • And thank you Jay for giving us all something to think about.

        Has the irony struck you of having done a lot of your research for your publication on the computer via the Internet, and yet you have ended up with a physical book, something that can sit on a library shelf. I think any prediction of the demise of the book is premature. Yet we can see what is taking place all around us, especially in respect to those under the age of 30. Frankly, I don’t know what the future holds with respect to either the book or libraries.

        • Edward, personally, I much prefer physical books. I like the feel of them, I like holding them in my hand. I write on the pages and underline things. I also own a Kindle, but I can’t remember the last time I used it. Everything I publish ends up in a digital format and a physical format, so I see them as interchangeable. Honestly, who knows if the book will disappear. I think that question will be left to the generation or two beyond me. It would not surprise me if middle schools and high schools moved away from text books completely in favor of digital books purely for economic reasons. Have you seen the cost of a text book lately? $100-200!! And they come out with a new one every other year! If that happens, the next generation will grow up more familiar with digital media. They will feel more familiar clicking a button than turning a page. But, who knows. I would not at all mind a revolution away from digital. You know, there’s a movement in my generation right now away from buying cars and even getting drivers’ licenses. People are living and working in their communities, then just riding bikes and walking. The same could easily happen in books.

          • The rush to always be relevant is scary because we do not know what the future holds. Like you, I grew up reading books on every conceivable subject just for the love of reading. But the cost of books has put me off of them except for the refuge of a public library.

            When I go to the Barnes and Nobles bookstore over in Sioux Falls, I am shocked at the price of books and all printed materials. I remember back in the past mid-century when you could buy paperbacks from 25 to 50 cents and for a dollar you could get a quite substantial paperback. Those indeed were the good old days. I thought they would last forever.

            I do not think the generations coming up have any idea of a love of books. Very many books are works of miniature art. I have never in my life thrown away a hardcover book. I keep them forever.

            The best hope for what we want is a librarian and a library board that also loves books and is NOT anxious to see them replaced with digital books on a computer screen. I also think like you that we may have another couple of generations before the matter is decided one way or another. Plenty of us old folks left after all.

    • The idea that libraries can be all things to all people is highly misleading. The idea that media centers can be all things to all people is even more misleading. Libraries are for certain things for certain people. In fact, it is why there are different kinds of libraries.

      Libraries are not needed for an expansion of digital services. There is nothing you cannot do on a computer in your home that you can do on a computer in a library or a media center. Libraries are needed for continued provision of printed materials provided you think that printed materials will continue to be important in the future. Anyone who thinks you can take the book out of the library and still have a library is delusional.

      What you will mostly get from community promoters who are ever anxious to spend the public purse are just vague promises of a brighter future for one and all. If we are gong to serve ethnicities, maybe the library should be buying Spanish language materials. If we are serving students, maybe we can do away with school libraries. In fact, since libraries are so great at educating everyone, maybe we do not need schools at all. Libraries only do a few things well; they do those things that are out of their proper purview badly.

      Some few folks do depend on librarians to help them access materials that they otherwise could not do on their own. However, it is assumed that anyone entering a library will be literate and be able to help himself if the library is organized properly and is not just a collection of random books and documents. Most of what librarians do is behind the scenes and you do have to be highly educated to do that. I think the reference functions of a library are on the wane with the advent of the computer and the Internet. A children’s library is a separate function entirely. I would prefer that libraries spend far more of their limited resources on the purchase of books and other printed materials and go easy on employing a multitude of clerks.

      What needs to be considered carefully is whether or not books and printed materials are any longer relevant or even desired. Library usage for whatever other purposes is beside the point. Such other usage can be accomplished with already existing other institutions. What I want to hear is a strong defense of the book and not a lot of blather about digital media and extraneous library services.

      I think that books will be around for a lot longer than the original author of this blog thinks nor do libraries have to change as much as the present librarian thinks. We are living amidst a revolution of communications (the Internet and the computer), but we do not know for sure how it is going to turn out. The last huge revolution was the invention of the printing press (movable type). That may turn out in the end to have been the biggest and best revolution of all. I am betting on that older revolution because I love books and printed materials and I do not love computers and the Internet. But it is the younger generations that will have the last word, not an old fogy like me.

      • Edward, clearly you are very passionate about the issue. Thank you again for contributing your views. Jay

  7. There are several recent reports (August 8th) from the American Association of Publishers which document the enormous growth in the sales of e-books in 2010 (252% sales growth) to the deep slide downward so far in 2013 (5% sales growth). It is being compared to radio when TV came out. Because of the new technology, radio became a dinosaur. Despite the initial reaction to shut out radio for the new TV, radio hung in there and is still big business today. The physical book has been described as “the only auto-playing, backwards-compatible to the dawn of English language, entirely self-contained medium we have left” (Chris Mims, MIT Technology Review, 9/21/10). I don’t believe physical books are going anywhere for a very long time. I know there will always be one on my nightstand.

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