There is an interesting dichotomy when it comes to lay people who talk about libraries. There is a population over in this corner saying that public libraries and librarians are unnecessary, because nobody reads books anymore and everything is on the internet (false). Then there is the other camp that argues that public libraries aren’t about books; they’re the last freely available space where everyone can have equitable access (closer to true, but also false, in some cases that I don’t have time or space to discuss in this particular essay). What both of these arguments purport is the fact that books are unnecessary to libraries in their current form.
And that, my friends, is so far from the truth, you couldn’t see it with a telescope.
Sure. Both of these arguments, to an extent, have some element of proof. There are significantly fewer people reading books than there were 30 years ago, because you don’t have to pick one up to get information that you can just as easily find in a google search or research database. And every public library with an advertisement budget has done the “We’re more than just books!” campaign in order to bring fresh new blood to the library (regardless of the fact that there is a voracious new generation of readers out there who want those books!). And yes. Thanks to an incredible amount of scope creep by some of the most empathetic professionals on the planet trying to be everyone for everything, libraries really have become one of the last spaces where (almost) anyone can walk in and use a catalog of (mostly) free services. They can sit at a computer and fill out job applications, or print out a school paper, or get help with social services that the linked government agencies aren’t capable of offering. They can do a craft or watch a movie. They can read the day’s newspaper. They can just come in and escape the elements. We are the true community center.
But we still offer a core service beyond access, and that core service is books.
When a lot of public librarians think about core services, they think about the most high-needs people that they see every day. Not just the adults who need computer help and access, but the kids who come to storytime and for the free snack program. They think of summer reading and encyclopedias, either in the building or online. Closing the Digital Divide. Homework help. English language classes. Crossing the language barrier. They think about eliminating bias when serving the unhoused or people suffering mental health crises. We are here for the most vulnerable in our communities, and want to help them in any way we can. In conversations about libraries, by both library professionals and lay people, these are the elements of library work that are most discussed and praised.
The recreational readers — adults in particular — get lost.
A lot of people who use the library specifically for books aren’t always asking for help from library staff, unless they’ve got a problem; in many places, they go into the building to pick up holds and check them out using self-check machines, if they’re not just borrowing books on Libby or hoopla. But because of that, even though library people stare at hundreds or thousands of books on a daily basis, we forget that the library building is there to offer the printed word — for education and entertainment — to the masses. To ensure the continuation of a literate society, no matter what they’re reading — no judgment. (There are certain things I will silently judge you for reading, and it has everything to do with you not believing in my human rights. But that’s why I don’t work in public service.)
We saw an incredible upswing in readers during the earliest parts of the pandemic — people who didn’t have time to read before, or were looking for something new, or for looking for something fun — and libraries have been there to offer them the materials they want to read. We’re seeing an incredibly disturbing upswing in challenges to people’s right to read, and their rights to access to certain books, and the library must be the place that continues to offer those books and fight like hell against anyone who tries to take them from their communities. Whether someone wants to read cozy mysteries or graphic memoirs, we promise our communities that we will offer them access to that reading. We host book clubs and author talks if we have the space and the staff, but don’t always make our library spaces emotionally welcoming to readers looking for books that have been purported as evil, or dirty, or “CRT” (the last of which is often just “a book with people of a racial background that is not white”). If libraries are for everyone, we should ensure that readers feel just as safe as those other vulnerable communities. We talk a big game about a balanced collection and something for everyone, so we should offer that collection as a pillar of the buildings we occupy and the space we take up.
(We’ll also have to have a different conversation about “balance” and “neutrality,” unless it pertains to books with completely made up misinformation about the existence of one or multiple genocides. Nobody should have access to those, unless they are using them to debunk their claims.)
Access. Community. Assistance. Education.
Yes, public libraries are all of those things, and will continue to offer them to anyone who needs them, regardless of the nature of the world.
But it’s still the last place where people of any socioeconomic background might have a chance of finding a book they want to read for free.
And we can’t let anyone take that away from us.