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How to Save the Library

Virginia’s Fairfax County library was struggling. Their budget was down 23 percent since 2008, and library visits had declined by 10 percent. The library administration made a plan – and at the top of that plan was the goal to move from “a print environment to a digital environment.”

So they began throwing away books – more than 250,000 of them, according to a story by the Washington Post Local’s Tom Jackman:

Hearing complaints that the Fairfax County Public Library was throwing away tons of books, County Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) decided to peer into a dumpster. Twice, she found stacks and stacks of high-quality books, bought by the taxpayers, piled in the trash … Smyth took her box of rescued books to the Fairfax government center, dumped them on a county official’s desk and demanded answers. The next day, Aug. 30, a directive went out to all branches suspending the discarding of books. Fairfax Board Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said she is going to ask the library administration on Tuesday to put a hold on its new strategic plan until the board and the public have more of a chance to weigh in.

This story illustrates a dilemma facing most of today’s libraries: how to survive in the technological age? What services can they offer to compete with other book and Internet providers?

There are several things one must keep in mind when addressing a library’s future. First, libraries’ solutions must be as diverse as the communities they serve. A recent Financial Times story on the future of libraries called them a “metaphor” for their communities.

If the library is a metaphor for the city itself, it can play just as profound a role in creating the image of a nation. One of the most famous images in architecture is visionary architect Etienne-Louis Boullée’s single-point perspective of a library for Paris (1785), a vast vaulted space in which the books are bricks and readers sit below a coffered vault foreshadowing the great roofs of the 19th-century stations. This was a model for a rational new France based, like Diderot’s encyclopedia, on knowledge.

But for this very reason, libraries must be specific to their place. This means others will not (and indeed should not) operate on such a massive scale. In a post titled “The Libraries We Need” at his revived “Text Patterns” blog over at The New Atlantis, Alan Jacobs pointed to the importance of peripheral, local libraries: the sort that aren’t large or grandiose like the city of Birmingham’s new library, but rather the sort that provide services to smaller neighborhoods.

In addition, despite the importance of a library’s print collection, the library must also offer technological services. Libraries must have a digital response for this digital era – and the benefits of inter-library loans (ILL’s) and online courses are significant for users. As Jacobs put it, “A neighborhood library … should have stacks that can be browsed, with as many books and journals as the library can afford, but — and maybe I’m flirting with heresy here — only after the library is well-equipped with internet-enabled computers and a staff who knows how to help people find what they want.”

Thirdly, the library should not forget its strength in functioning as a commons or community-gathering place. A blogger at Getting Rich Slowlyshared some thoughts on the way other libraries have done this successfully:

Recently, the Los Angeles Public Library launched the “Citizenship Corners” initiative. Szabo sums it up: “In Los Angeles, there are 700,000 people legally eligible to become U.S. citizens, but for whom that process can be difficult to find out about, hard to take the first step, bureaucratic…What the library has done is partnered with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to offer citizenship information in all 73 of our libraries.” …Impressively, a handful of other cities, including Chicago, are following suit.

Whether providing Internet to poor citizens, teaching classes, or helping inspire a local kindergarten student to read, the library can offer countless services to its community. But it must take a community-centric and proactive approach in order to do this.

But finally, the library must not forget its primary, ancient, traditional function: providing books to the public. Despite the many digital and communal services it can offer, its greatest gift is still the printed word. True, the library must figure out ways to cut extraneous costs. But it cannot cut away that basic component of its nature. It should never throw away its books.

One cannot blame the Fairfax County Library for attempting to downsize in the face of financial difficulty. And donating old copies to shelters or schools could be beneficial to all parties involved. But while increasing digital services provided will help, a library’s primary function and goal should always be to unite reader with book. It must always be a “print environment.”

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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