Is the physical library outdated?

I’m a big fan of the library. I really enjoy the whole experience of visiting my local library. Everything from the quiet atmosphere to the rows upon rows of carefully tended to books tells me this is a place for me.

However, there are some that would argue that the library is becoming antiquated in todays internet dominated society. The same people that have predicted the demise of the physical book have forecast the end for our precious hubs of literary goodness. Today on the blog we’ll be discussing this question: Is the physical library outdated?

Are they right? Is the library something that belongs to a previous generation? Has it been superseded by Siri and her instantaneous access to knowledge? Perhaps the library is something we will look back on in future generations with nostalgia, destined to go the way of video hire stores such as our beloved ‘Blockbuster’.

I don’t think so.

Are you a fan of podcasts? I am! One of my favourite podcasts, 99% Invisible (99 PI) addressed this question around libraries and their relevance in their recent episode, ‘Palaces for the People’. If you want to listen to that episode you can find it here. It’s a great episode, I recommend giving it a listen.

Our cat, Magnus, Isn’t what you’d call an ‘active listener’. But he is cute!

In the episode author and sociologist Eric Klinenberg discusses the concept of the library as ‘Palaces for the People’, a concept that originated with Andrew Carneige.

Carnegie helped to fund more than 2,500 libraries around the world—about 1,700 of which were in the United States. He called greatest of them “palaces for the people.” The great Carnegie libraries had high ceilings, big windows, and spacious rooms where a person could read, think, and achieve something that they felt proud of. 

99% Invisible: Episode 346

Klinenberg uses this concept of libraries as ‘Palaces of the People’ to unpack the importance of the library as an institution within society. The producers of 99 PI are careful to note that while Carnegie came up with this phrase, his libraries were not ‘Palaces for all People’ with many of his libraries being racially segregated throughout the early 20th century.

I think this idea is key to why I think (this is my opinion, feel free to disagree haha!) libraries are vital and not outdated in contemporary society. I think it’s a beautiful way to describe what a library is, and how I feel about them

So what’s so special about the library?

  • Books! The first thing that springs to mind for most people with libraries is BOOKS! Books play a vital role in educating people, for free! Libraries ensure that people without access to books in their own home, are able to read and learn in a safe environment.

  • Programs! Libraries have a host of programs that serve the sociological function of bringing people together. Whether it’s story time for children, book club or seminars on learning computer skills many libraries run programs in addition to just providing books. In the 99PI podcast Klinenberg discusses in greater detail some of the other amazing programs run by libraries (Including a Wii bowling club! and Karaoke nights!). These programs mean that people who were isolated (the elderly, low-income families, the disabled and more) and therefore potentially less well cared for had a place where they could interact with others.

  • Reducing Crime rates? This was a fascinating argument put forward by Klinenberg. Have you heard of the ‘broken windows’ theory? It’s an idea that in neighbourhoods that have broken windows (where the physical environment has deteriorated) and no one has fixed it, there is higher crime rates. The idea basically being that criminals seeing the broken windows believe they are more likely to get away with crime in this neighbourhood. Klinenberg proposed that in neighbourhoods with more social infrastructure, (such as libraries) crime rates were lower.

So what now?

I don’t know where I stand in believing that Libraries have a direct impact on crime rates in neighbourhoods, it’s something I need to research more on. I did think it was interesting to consider! I really recommend you listen to episode 346 of 99PI, if you do, let me know your thoughts on the show in the comments.

I do know my local library is a safe place for many people to go. It’s a place of learning, and of community. Those are principles that, in my mind at least, will never be outdated. I’ve seen many people cared for (myself included) by the staff and volunteers there.

The way libraries have adapted with their variety of programs they offer shows the desire for them to maintain their relevance. My local libraries hosts a number of varied programs to suit the neighbourhood they’re in. They are soon to host a ‘Silent Reading Party’ which as an introvert I think sounds awesome!

In the golden age of the early 20th Century, there were very wealthy individuals like Arthur Clineberg investing in libraries. While I’m not saying there aren’t wealthy people investing in libraries today, I think that the burden shouldn’t be on the individuals to invest in libraries (though that is awesome!). As Klinenberg suggests in the podcast, it’s the responsibility of the government to invest more into social infrastructure such as the library. Places where people gather, where they are welcomed and encouraged to engage with one another.

But what about technology?

You might be excused for thinking that the rapid advancements in technology of the last three decades has rendered the library somewhat irrelevant. What do you need the library for when you can just Google your question and have the answer in seconds.

However, the library still plays a vital role in research. Not all books are digitally accessible due to their age or delicacy. Sure for the average high schooler they might not need those books.

Maybe it’s the librarian that the average high schooler needs, to teach them about reliable sources. About where to find information on their topic. Librarians are awesome! That’s something that Siri can’t match.

As I mentioned above, libraries are adapting. The physical library has incorporated lots of technology into their systems to enhance the library experience. The digitising of the catalogue, e-checkout systems and automatic renewals are just a few examples of the ways some libraries have incorporated technology into their spaces.

One of my favourite examples is the Libby App. Using this app I’m able to access the hundreds of ebooks and audiobooks that my library has in their collection. The app works by you inputing your local library card (the app has access to libraries right across the world). You’re then able to borrow and place holds on your favourite ebooks and audiobooks right from the device in your hand! It’s awesome. Check it out!

Let’s chat more

I really appreciate the library, and I hope you do too, maybe a little more after today’s post. Why do you love the library? What programs does your local library run? Comment below! I’d love to see what others think about this topic!

Do you know a fellow book lover who might enjoy todays discussion? Use the buttons below to share todays post with them!

Do you have instagram? Follow me @stephuddlestonwriting for more bookish content during your week! My blog updates weekly on Fridays. Enjoy your weekend, I hope you get some reading time in!

Hi! I'm Steph, a freelance writer for hire based in Australia. I'm an avid reader and love all things bookish! My blog is all about the written word.

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