This question occurred to me after reading yet another blog post about the current/coming/avoidable obsolete nature of public libraries. The comments after the post added to the confusion. Some people think libraries need to change with the times and add more technology for everyone to use: libraries should have more computers, faster Internet connections, loan out e-readers. Others moan about how libraries have too many computers and not enough books; libraries should reduce the computers and offer more books, like they did when the poster was young. And therein lies the problem: Should libraries adapt to the present and prepare for the future, or live in the past and just be warehouses of books?
When I started my professional career as a librarian 19 years ago, I was asked at a job interview, “Why do you want to be a reference librarian?” My answer was, I like helping people find the information they are looking for, whether it is a book, from a database, or from someplace else. I am an information professional, not a book professional.
My attraction to the library field had little to do with a love of books, despite growing up in a house that had shelves and shelves of books (and many, many years of National Geographic to browse through) and parents who visited the library for more books on an almost weekly basis. In fact, when I was young, I didn’t much like most of the librarians I had met: they either censored what I wanted to read or didn’t seem all that helpful. If you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, librarian would have never even entered my mind as a possibility.
What changed my mind was working at the library in college. Sophomore year I worked in the Interlibrary Loan Department as a driver, going to another university to track down and photocopy all the articles requested by my fellow students. I became quite the photocopy artist, making sure all the copies were readable and getting the articles into as few pages as possible. I trekked all over Miami University’s campus, visiting the libraries and gathering books to take to their ILL department to check out to our college students. My junior year, the ILL librarian who had hired me was gone, and someone else took her place and didn’t know I was a driver. I got shunted over to the Circulation Desk — and had even more fun in a library. My supervisor, Leo, was the best supervisor I have EVER had, and is the sole reason I am a librarian today. He saw something in me that he encouraged, even willing for me to try working in reference because he thought I’d be good at it. I hated working in the reference department because of how I was treated by that librarian, and begged Leo to take me back to Circulation again. But I knew reference was what I wanted to do, and with his encouragement I applied for library school.
What I loved so much at the Circulation Desk was when someone would come in and not know how to do something, and I could help them with that. I was good at finding the book they needed in the catalog, or tracking down the book on the shelf. I just loved answering questions. I loved doing the research required for my classes, and found myself starting the research as soon as the topic was assigned, but not actually writing the paper until the night before it was due; I just wanted to research. It was all about information, finding out information, figuring out what format the information was likely to be in (book or periodical?), tracking it down. I thought I’d go on to be a reference librarian in an academic library, but found myself instead in the public library world due to the competition. And I’m still at the same library that gave me my first professional position as a librarian, 19 years later.
So, with all this information-junkie background, it pains me to see the conversation about the future of libraries focus so much just on books. Not all librarians were English or history majors (I was one of two math majors in the library school during my two years there), and not all librarians are fixated on books as our sole purpose. Yes, reading is important; yes, finding the right book for each reader is important; yes, being literate enough to function in society is crucial to this country’s future. But libraries are much more than that, probably have been for much of their history, we just don’t think about it because libraries mostly did all those other things with books because that was the only format they had to offer.
Librarians have always been good at showing people how to identify good resources versus heavily biased sources; it used to be for books, now it’s being smart about websites. Libraries have always been something of a community and education center (example: children’s story times); that mission has not changed, although what libraries offer their communities might look a little different. Brick-and-mortar libraries are still education places, entertainment places, regardless of our users’ income levels or educational backgrounds. We provide computers to apply for jobs, software to type up your resume, printers to keep copies of your filed income tax returns, a warm space when you are waiting for your ride, fun clubs for your children after school, space for local authors to talk about their writing, DVDs to watch over the weekend, resources for your kids’ science projects, and much, much more. It’s about information, folks, and it’s about community. I don’t see either of those becoming unnecessary in the future, so I don’t see any reason for public libraries to become obsolete.