By the Book: What Are Libraries For?

On Wednesday afternoon, I arrived at work to see a rare sight: actual high school students hanging out in the library. Lately, we’ve been getting a regular group of middle school boys, who like to play Roblox games on our laptops, but sometimes settle in for a game of Monopoly from our board game collection.  They were at the library too that day, along with several elementary school kids, who had come to do a painting project we were hosting in our Community Room. There were families with toddlers and preschoolers browsing for books in the picture book area, and our regular older adults using the Internet on our computers. There were even several adults in their twenties or thirties who came in to check out books and use the copier.

After the pandemic had left our building mostly empty for several months after we reopened, I was thrilled to see the whole place full of people of all different ages, all coming to the library for different reasons. So, when a man came up to the desk to complain about the library becoming “a hangout for kids,” it was like being doused with a bucket of ice water.

Not that this complaint was anything new. My coworkers and I have often been confronted by people who have a very specific idea of what libraries should be: silent mausoleums of books overseen by somber, shushing librarians.

I get it. For someone who looks to the library as a quiet place to study and read, it can be upsetting to be distracted by middle schoolers joking around at a nearby table. But the reality is that very few of the people we serve have the time to sit and read during the day. And some of the people who hold this unchanged vision of libraries are the ones who don’t value them at all, like the man who posted on our local NextDoor years ago, arguing that our town didn’t need a new library because “you can buy all of your books on Amazon.”

Adapt or Die

Although the two library branches I work in are older one-room buildings designed largely around shelving for books, most of the newer libraries in our system have been designed to provide separate spaces for different needs: computer rooms, study rooms, teen areas, maker spaces, children’s rooms, etc. But it can be hard to convince people why these changes are necessary.

In spite of the fixed view of libraries and librarians that still appear in TV shows and movies, libraries have always had to adapt to the times. In all of my years working in different libraries, I’ve never once been asked for a scroll or a cuneiform tablet. I can’t help but wonder if there was an uproar when the first newfangled paper books appeared on library shelves.

Over the past few decades, libraries have had to cope with an astounding number of changes in media, going from vinyl records to cassette tapes to CDs, and from VHS tapes to DVDs, and all of it giving way to digital music, videos, and books, most of which can now be accessed from anywhere on a computer or smartphone with your library card. This digital revolution sometimes raises the question of why we need the actual library buildings at all, but it has come at the cost of leaving a lot of people behind.

Bridging the Digital Divide

Even though my main focus has always been on youth services, a lot of my time at work is spent helping people who don’t have the training or resources to deal with a world that is moving more and more online by the day. Recently, one of my regular patrons, a woman in her eighties, asked for my help setting up a Venmo account. The craft fair that she has always participated in as a vendor was suddenly telling everyone they needed to offer mobile payment options. When she told the organizer that she wasn’t familiar with those, she was told, “Maybe you should stay home.”

To people who use a smartphone everyday, learning to use Venmo may seem easy, but for this patron, it was a huge ordeal. In order to be able to access the money she hoped to get from the sale, she had to connect her bank account to her new Venmo account. But she had never used online banking, so she didn’t have a login to easily make the connection. I helped her set up her bank login, but it still wouldn’t connect to Venmo, because the bank used multifactor authentication (that annoying business with the one-time codes sent to your phone). Instead she had to enter her account info into Venmo and then wait a day or two to watch for two small deposits, (so actually the online banking login came in handy after all). After we finally got through all of that, I helped her learn to send and receive payments, and print out her QR code for people to scan at the sale. She was persistent and eager to learn, but the whole process was just another reminder of how wide the digital divide has become, and how each new innovation assumes that everyone has already adapted to the ones that came before.

Providing computer help and training takes a lot of time and patience, but I consider it one of the most important parts of my job, and so do my coworkers. To me it’s no different from helping someone find a book or article on a particular topic. They need information to help them with a problem, and we have the training and resources to help them. And unless you have tech-savvy friends or family, there are very few options for people who are faced with a task that requires a daunting online process they’ve never dealt with before.

Aside from tech help, our libraries also provide free access to computers, printers, copiers, scanners and the Internet, all of which are in constant use throughout the day. We also offer 3D Printing, which has become hugely popular. Some of our newer libraries have makerspaces with laser cutters, recording equipment, and sewing machines. Again, some people would argue that this is getting away from their idyllic book-focused vision of the library, but these spaces are offering free access to the media tools of the day, which has always been the main purpose of libraries.

Books Are Still Important

With all of this focus on new technologies, it may sound like I’m saying that books no longer matter, which is absolutely not the case. I became a librarian because I loved helping people find books, and encouraging kids to love reading is still my favorite part of the job. It’s also tremendously important. Numerous studies have shown that kids who are read to regularly in early childhood are more likely to develop language and cognitive skills that will help them be successful in school later on. But books, especially picture books, are expensive. So providing free access to books for kids of all ages and reading levels is still, and hopefully will always be, an essential part of the library.

And, in spite of all the doom and gloom about Americans not reading books, I still see a lot of adults enthusiastically checking out books every day. We also offer book clubs, which have always been popular, and a great way to bring people with different viewpoints together for a friendly discussion (something that’s increasingly rare in our polarized society).

Community Spaces

The other need that libraries serve is providing a space that’s free and welcoming to everyone, and helps build a sense of belonging to a community. Libraries have always offered events and programs to bring people together, whether it’s for a musical performance, a painting workshop, or an author talk, and spaces for local groups to get together. After the pandemic, which left many people even more isolated than before, this has become even more essential.

Balancing the Needs of our Communities

One of the biggest challenges libraries face is providing space and resources for everyone, no matter what their personal beliefs, age, or background. There have always been people who have tried to dictate what types of books their libraries should or should not offer, something that has recently come to a head in a lot of communities. We also run into people, like the man I mentioned above, who feel that certain types of people, like kids, or people experiencing homelessness, should not be allowed in the library. Some of the hardest situations are when library patrons get into disputes with each other (we once had an actual fist fight in the nonfiction section). With all of the different types of people and needs that we serve, it’s also hard to know what to prioritize in terms of staff time and resources.

Being a shared space for everyone can make working in the library unpredictable in ways that can be stressful and contentious. But it’s that same unpredictability that also makes the job so refreshing and rewarding. It’s a constantly shifting landscape of people and services, and that’s one of the reasons that I love it.

As for the grumpy man complaining about the kids, I told him that usually the library is very quiet before 3pm and after 5pm, and that seemed to appease him. Another unspoken function of the library: helping people learn to share.

2 thoughts on “By the Book: What Are Libraries For?

  1. That is so cool! In Virginia, some of our patients are accessing our medical services by going to their local library and using a conference room there exactly for the reasons that you mentioned! They are highly intimidated by technology and frequently don’t have access at home!

    • That’s really good to hear! I hadn’t even thought about the impact of telemedicine: incredibly convenient if you have the ability to use it, yes, but really difficult if you don’t. A while ago, we had a patron who needed to print a file from her medical records, and rather than printing the file for her, Kaiser gave her her entire medical history on a CD-ROM. She had never used a computer, so we had to connect one of our CD-ROM drives to our desktops for her and guide her through the whole process of finding and printing the file. Great to hear from you, by the way! Hope the kids are doing well. 😊

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