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The Death of the Library: Read It and Weep

4 years ago
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I walked into my local public library in London the other day and got a rude shock. All of my favorite librarians were gone. They'd been replaced by machines. Where the circulation desk once stood -- manned by a friendly soul with whom I'd chat about politics or the weather or the latest London Review of Books -- I now swiped my library card and pushed a button that said "borrow" or "return."

They'd also done some remodeling. This particular branch sits in an elegant 1930s building located in the garden of the house where the poet John Keats wrote his "Ode to a Nightingale." The main room -- once cluttered with books that literally spilled onto the floor -- now is a shadow of its former self. Rather than books, the main thing on display would appear to be tables -- artfully dotted around the room as if this were a café or the premier-class lounge for an airline. ("It's so bright even druggies wouldn't inject here," quipped a cynical online reviewer.)

And it's not just in the United Kingdom where libraries are morphing into something else . . . if not dying out completely. I've seen numerous articles about the demise of them in the United States, whether it's the closure of branches in Boston, reduced hours in Los Angeles, or the architectural makeovers that render library books merely decorative, as in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

According to a report by the American Library Association and the Center for Library and Information Innovation at the University of Maryland, more than 25 million Americans reported using their public library more than 20 times in 2008, up from 20.3 million Americans in 2006. Particularly in the wake of the economic downturn, more and more Americans are turning to public libraries for such things as job hunting or to seek government services and continuing education -- not to mention free books, DVDs and CDs. And yet, according to this same study, a majority of states report cuts in library financing.

In short -- much like the post office -- we seem to be losing these iconic communal institutions of our youth. And when we do keep them around, we repackage them along commercial lines as if that's the only way to make them palatable to the public. I took a walking tour around East London a month or so ago and happened upon a bright orange, modern structure with the word "idea store" spelled out in a colorful lowercase font across the entrance. "What's that?" I asked. "Oh, that's the local public library," the tour guide answered. "It's now called an idea store." (In a similar vein, librarians in my London borough are now called customer service experts -- with the term "library" added in parentheses. They are also required to wear badges that say "How Can I Help?" and -- according to one with whom I spoke -- can be fired if they fail to do so.)

The death of the library as we once knew it is a shame for many reasons. In my family, at least, the local library has always been a focal point for connecting with our community. Back when we lived in the States, our local library in Oak Park, Ill., hosted book clubs, art exhibitions, film screenings and discussion groups on topics ranging from local zoning laws to children with multiple allergies. When we moved to London four years ago, it was our local librarians who suggested that my husband and I read Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" as an introduction to this city's vibrant multiculturalism and who recommended the Lemony Snicket series to my son when he grew out of Harry Potter.

But lest you think I'm just nostalgic for the days of yore, when no one bowled alone, I think that there are also pragmatic reasons for preserving our libraries.

Let's start with the future generation. While the conventional wisdom these days seems to be "Who needs libraries when you have Google?," the truth is that Google is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to research skills. As Sara Scribner, a children's librarian in Pasadena, California, notes, "In a time when information literacy is increasingly crucial to life and work, not teaching kids how to search for information is like sending them out into the world without knowing how to read."

Among other skills she teaches her pupils are how to sift through different kinds of reference materials (e.g. books, online resources, academic databases), how to tell good online information from bad and how to save time by optimizing search terms. In a country where education reform remains an ongoing -- if unresolved -- priority, you'd think that teaching our children basic library skills ought to be paramount.

Libraries are also crucial for adults. I have a good friend who's a reference librarian at one of the major urban public libraries in the United States. Day in and day out, she answers an enormous range of questions on every subject under the sun from people from every age (from 7 to 70) and race and occupational and income group you can imagine. Some of these people don't speak English very well or are too old to be computer literate. They come to the library because, as she put it, "it's the poor man's university."

It shows inventors how to file patents. It provides information on how to become a citizen. It provides tax forms and voter registration materials and bus schedules for free. It answer's anyone's questions -- from how to remove a troublesome stain to how their elected representatives voted on abortion or tax reform or the regulation of financial markets.

My librarian friend reminds me that President Barack Obama obtained his first job after attending Columbia University by going to the New York Public Library. He used something called Job Search Central, which provides all kinds of databases, books, classes and books on how to find a job that is both suitable and desirable, how to start a new business, how to write a resume, how to prepare for a job interview, even how to look for a job if you've just been released from prison. And you don't have to buy a $5 latte from Starbucks to enjoy the privilege.

In short, libraries are vital to creating an informed citizenry that is the hallmark of any democracy. So what do we lose when we lose libraries? We lose a lot.

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