Libraries have come a long way since Aristotle’s days teaching at The Lyceum in Athens, Greece. Gone are the days when libraries were simply a building for book collections. With over 16,500 locations across the country, there are more public libraries than there are McDonald’s restaurants. But as the world changes, libraries need to change with them. Are they up to the task?
The public loves libraries. According to the Pew Research Center in a report published in 2017, 78% of adults believe that libraries help them locate information that is trustworthy. With the growing amounts of “fake news” and misinformation out there, it seems people feel the need to reach out to a trustworthy source to muck through the sewers and locate that golden nugget of truth.
Unfortunately for libraries, there is a difference between viewing libraries as a source of truth and actually visiting one. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that a mere 48% of adults have visited a library in the past 12 months. This is a slight uptick from 44% the prior year, but still short of the 53% they were at in 2012. On the upside, in a piece published by the American Library Association, they found 70% of voters have visited a library 8.6 times in the past year. Unfortunately if you judge by the 2016 election, only 5,965,000 or roughly 2% of the American population.
To add insult to injury, libraries are constantly underfunded. The American Library Association found that only 51.9% of libraries had the funding to reach out to teens that don’t utilize their services. Additionally, back in March of 2019, they were in danger of losing most of their funding. The senate ended up passing a bill that increased library funding by $10 million. It was a battle won, but the war is far from over.
All of this information sounds like bad news, but there is a silver lining to all of this, believe it or not. As the old saying goes, “desperation breeds innovation.” Innovation is exactly what libraries need. Most of these libraries don’t really need to worry about making a profit because there is no profit to be made. They rely on a lot of government funding to keep their doors open, which is nice for society, but it’s a lousy business model. A big part of their struggle is not just budget cuts, but their inability to adapt to an ever changing world.
Library administrators are starting to understand that they are a business like any others. It seems the fear of completely losing their funding and having to fight tooth and nail to keep it these past 3 years’ has awoken a sleeping giant. It’s like a dad threatening to throw their kid into a pool for a sink or swim lesson, but not actually doing it. The kid knows that one day he might actually do it, so he makes damn sure that he learns how swim and buys a harpoon gun and scuba gear so he’s prepared for when it does happen.
Libraries are starting to innovate in rather interesting ways to draw in readers (which are potential donors and signatures on ALA petitions). I’m seeing a lot wine and reads or beer and reads where the library teams up with a local brewery to draw in the younger crowd. I’ve never read drunk and I can’t imagine it’s fun, but people are loving it.
As far as technology goes, libraries are finally catching up to the 21st century. There’s a neat little invention called The Short Story Dispenser. It allows the user to access a database of short stories and dispenses one. The selection is based on how much time you have to read (1, 3, or 5 minutes). So if you’re waiting in line for the basic girl pumpkin spice latte, you’ll have a brief short story to read to make the time pass. It’s the librarian of the future.
In essence, libraries are going through a period of tough love, but I believe they’ll be okay. Just remember, if you’re among the 78% of people that love libraries for their reliable information, then don’t be among the 52% that don’t visit them.