Friday, January 16, 2009

The evolution of libraries 

I grew up around libraries. My mom worked near one and I often took the bus there to read and wait for her to get off work. I learned the old Dewey decimal system, snuck down in the basement to read Breakfast of Champions and Ball Four (both of which had bad words in them), find those long rods on which someone put a Globe or a Times for you to read. I loved the library. When I went to college and then grad school, I spent many hours each day in their libraries not just to research my papers but just to read journals.

That's why it rather pains me to write this, but I will anyway: Why do we have libraries? Or more to the point, why are libraries providing these services?

A few years ago, public libraries were being written off as goners. The Internet had made them irrelevant, the argument went. But libraries across the country are reporting jumps in attendance of as much as 65% over the past year, as newly unemployed people flock to branches to fill out r�sum�s and scan ads for job listings.

Other recession-weary patrons are turning to libraries for cheap entertainment -- killing time with the free computers, video rentals and, of course, books.

I wonder if Andrew Carnegie contributed his money for libraries to compete with the local Hollywood Video store? Many Carnegie libraries are now serving other functions, but many are these places now where people are waiting in dozen-deep queues for an internet connection. Aren't these functions available elsewhere? The City of Minneapolis spent $110 million a couple of years ago for its library; is this money well spent? Don't most people do these things in coffee shops now? In a city that offers free public wifi, for example, do we need libraries any more?

I'm quite certain that, once upon a time, a broad cross-section of society had no access to books or print news, etc., without access to a library. When I studied at Claremont it was rather common for people in the community to use this private school's library -- they could even get lending privileges. They still can. The old Carnegie library of Claremont is now a building on the Pomona College campus; the city has its own newer library a few blocks away. I have a soft spot in my heart for that old Carnegie -- I took my first class in grad school there, and a few years later taught my first section of principles of economics in that room to the right of the front door. But it hasn't been a library in over fifty years now.

The same is true in Minnesota
. St. Paul spends $36 per resident on its libraries while worrying over its budget for cops.

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