Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2013/ Why Libraries Still Matter

Why Libraries Still Matter

In the age of the Internet, it is tempting to argue that public libraries no longer matter. University libraries still serve a clear purpose -- they archive old materials that are not on the internet (yet), but which might prove interesting some day. But as I learned to my horror a few years ago, public libraries continually throw out old books to make room for new ones.

As time goes on more and more books are published simultaneously on paper and in (locked-down, natch) electronic versions. Over the next few years I expect that paper copies will become rarer and rarer. Then what purposes will libraries serve?

The common thread through these purposes is that public libraries are helpful to poor people who have few other alternatives. When I was unemployed and/or depressed, I used the public library extensively. I treated it as a destination, a way to structure my days. The alternative would have been sitting at home all day every day, or wandering idly with no destination. After reading a zine by another depressed person, I realized just how helpful it is to have a noncommercial space where people can go, if only to sit for a while and/or check their email.

Unfortunately, it is not sufficient for libraries to serve the poor. Libraries work because they are popular. If the popularity of libraries diminishes because rich people stay away and download reading materials in the comforts of their own homes, then libraries will become less and less relevant to the general public, and they could die. It does not appear that this is happening yet; even under construction our central library is bustling and well-used. But I worry.