Libraries obsolete? Not a chance

How different a 21st century library is from a smartphone, or even from a 20th century library

by Chris Blank, Black Press

I was recently chatting with an acquaintance and he asked me what I was up to these days. I told him I’ve been very involved with public libraries at the provincial level.

“Libraries,” he snorted. “Why do we need them? I have one in my pocket.”

I assume he was referring to his smartphone. I didn’t get the chance to tell him how different a 21st century library is from a smartphone, or even from a 20th century library. I’m sure he’s not alone in his thinking. Allow me to try to persuade him, and other doubters, that we do need libraries. Very much.

For the past five years, I’ve been a director and then president of the BC Library Trustees Association which represents and supports 71 library boards around BC. I’ve had the chance to hear library stories from Tumbler Ridge to Victoria to Fernie, and everywhere in between. Stories of parents learning about the stars alongside their children. Of meals being provided for kids during hard economic times. Of grandparents learning to use Skype to share in their grandkids’ lives.

It makes my heart sing to see what libraries are creating with and for their communities. Very little sshh’ing goes on these days. Libraries are lively and busy places. Obsolescence is not in sight! Nor is it an option.

Libraries are deeply democratic institutions – one of the first. Hundreds of years ago, they were created to make knowledge available to everyone, not just the wealthy. In the early days, they housed scrolls.

More recently, they’ve offered books and magazines, movies and music, computers and eBooks. Some even offer garden tools or musical instruments as part of their collections.

David Lankes is a leading thinker on libraries and their future. One of his well-known aphorisms is this: bad libraries build collections, good libraries build services, great libraries build communities.

Increasingly, libraries are becoming great. Yes, they still convene collections and invite people in to use them, or to access material and quality information on-line. Yes, they still offer services like storytimes and author readings, computer literacy and newcomer programs, outreach to seniors and to rural areas, makerspaces and digital media labs.

And now, as they pursue greatness, libraries have increasingly become important (one might say essential) community hubs. They’re often the last free indoor public space. They’re trusted places where everyone – whether an isolated senior, a street person or a lonely teen – can feel welcome and connected to community.

As well, libraries work with local and provincial governments to help them meet their goals, whether support for the new education curriculum or for people researching work and business opportunities. Libraries partner with community organizations to mutually maximize their shared goals.

Last fall, the BC Libraries Branch (part of the Ministry of Education) released a vision for public libraries. In their words: “This plan supports government’s vision that our public libraries provide British Columbians with access to the information and tools they need to learn, work, create and thrive in today’s changing world.”

And that’s what libraries do, with funding mainly from local governments, but also from the province, community donors and fundraising (of course!).

Sadly, we see terrible damage to libraries in Saskatchewan as a result of deep funding cuts by the provincial government. Newfoundland and Labrador are awaiting a review of their libraries, in the wake of threatened closures of more than half of them last year.

Yet, in places like Australia, we see cities investing in magnificent new 21st century libraries. They get it! They see the reality and potential of libraries.

Which leads me to think about the recent B.C. election. I encourage you to let all the successful candidates know how important libraries are, whether for yourself or your child or your community. Tell them that these community spaces are thriving and meeting many needs, and the government must continue to support and invest in them. For the good of all.

I’m also thinking about the challenges that we’re facing globally, from climate change to polarization and violence. Libraries stand ready to help us be strong and resilient communities, accepting and welcoming. They’ve never been more important.

And if you aren’t convinced by my words, I invite you to visit your local library. You’ll be amazed at what’s going on. You might even be compelled to give them a donation, or at least a big smiling “thank you.”

I hope my acquaintance reads the newspaper on his so-called ‘pocket library’ and will try the real thing someday soon.