Why Libraries Matter

Mar 1, 2011

Predicting the future can be a dangerous thing. When I was a child in the early nineteen-sixties, I used to watch a television show that predicted how we’d live in the far-off world of 2000.

By then, I was told, our homes would be heated by mini-nuclear power plants in the basement and we’d take our private helicopters to work. Nobody, however, saw the coming of the Internet.

Futurologists have gotten somewhat more cautious since then, but there is something most of them do agree on, which is that days are numbered for libraries as we have known them. Printed products have been  moving rapidly to servers and Kindles. While most are still published on paper, this is widely seen as a temporary measure which will last only as long as it takes the old fuddy-duddies to die off.

And priorities are shifting. Last week, the Detroit Public Library announced the layoff of a fifth of their entire staff, or eighty-three employees, at the end of March. The far more affluent suburb of Troy has already voted to close its library. Other libraries across the state are threatened with huge cuts or extinction.

The economy is bad, but why do we feel that we can live without libraries?  Here’s what one reader posted on the Detroit Free Press website, spelling several words wrong in the process: “Library’s are fast becoming a thing of the past due to rapid access and information that can be had via the Internet.”

Or, in other words, why would we possibly need a place where books are kept and stored when we’ve got Google? Those who defend libraries mainly do so on the grounds that everybody doesn‘t have a computer at home. The newspaper‘s story about the layoffs talked about all the poor people who come to the library to print resumes and scan the internet for job openings.

That is indeed more than enough reason to keep libraries open and well funded. That’s not, however, the main reason we need them. I think we need libraries because of books. That’s right, books. Printed books, books on paper, books on different topics lining the shelves.

To the extent I am a successful adult today, it is due in large part to that when I was a kid I spent hours and hours in public libraries; reading at random, satisfying my curiosity, learning that an interest in one thing leads to an expanded interest in other things.

Yes, you can find information on the internet. But usually you are finding just what you are looking for. You are far less likely to run into a book by accident that may change your life, as people do in libraries. They still do this, by the way; I talked to a twelve-year-old boy in line at the Rochester Hills library who was working through an adventure series.

There really isn’t any substitute for a personal experience spent with a portable book with pages you can feel, and which can start you on a friendship with somebody who may be long dead.

If we lose libraries, we may someday be a state of well-trained technocrats, maybe even prosperous ones. But we won’t be a truly civilized people any more, and that will be incredibly sad.