Katrine Watkins: Libraries are not obsolete!

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Google and I began working together in September of 1998. As a newly minted librarian, I was enthralled with my new colleague, a precocious newborn.

Its clean interface was so refreshing! As an infant, Google made my work life easier in so many ways, as it still does for all of us. Google hits milestone after developmental milestone, and our working relationship in the library continues to evolve.

For the past 15-plus years, Google and I have had another workplace companion, however. This one is also a product of the digital world and is just as omnipresent as Google. Our stubborn associate’s most distinguishing feature is that it hasn’t changed much from its original incarnation. It remains The Question:

“Aren’t libraries obsolete?”

The American Library Association is still kicking, but libraries have not had an easy time of it in recent years. Funding cuts have required reductions in staff and materials. Public libraries in Pennsylvania, for example, have had to make do with less financial support since the first budget under former Gov. Ed Rendell in 2003. Cuts in public education funding under Gov. Tom Corbett have done serious harm to Pennsylvania school library services.

The Question is still going strong in our state and across the country and is also being asked abroad. In response, the author Neil Gaiman recently gave a lecture in London entitled “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.” Healthy libraries, he points out, remain vital, even in our increasingly digital culture.

Mr. Gaiman estimated that the world now produces a mind-boggling five exabytes (or billion gigabytes) of data every day. Access to that information through one’s local library is as free to the people now as it was when Andrew Carnegie’s first public library opened in Braddock in 1889. A case of information overload is likewise as free now as it was then. Librarians have been treating the condition for years.

During a reference interview, a librarian listens attentively and asks questions to bring a request for information into better focus. That shelf of books or host of search terms on a given topic is winnowed to a relevant two or three. Finding one’s way in a constantly expanding information universe requires more navigational experience and expertise than ever before.

Libraries are a gateway to the fictional universe as well, as Mr. Gaiman explained. Whether the story is told on paper or electronically, when it is checked out from the library it is a free ride to an unfamiliar place that can significantly change the reader. Taking on the difficulties of a fictional character as though they are one’s own problems builds empathy. We begin to see beyond ourselves into the lives of those around us. Taking on the achievements of a character as though they are one’s own can be empowering. We begin to see beyond our world to a better world.

Carnegie’s public libraries were an answer to subscription-based libraries that the working poor could not afford. Today’s libraries still serve those readers who cannot travel the world of words unless the ticket comes free of charge.

With fact and fiction free for the taking in a atmosphere free of everyday distractions, libraries by their very nature encourage daydreaming, the third of Mr. Gaiman’s requirements for a healthy future. Daydreaming, thinking without plan or purpose, may not seem to be an activity that should be supported by our tax dollars. Perhaps it should be tolerated but not encouraged in the library, an institution that makes available so many resources for practical improvements.

Neil Gaiman thinks otherwise. “[The] truth is,” he says, “individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.” Libraries are our culture’s longstanding testament to the inestimable value of free thought. Today’s daydream may lead nowhere, or it may create tomorrow’s innovation.

E.B. White, in a 1943 essay about democracy for the War Board, wrote about “the feeling of communion” in a library. A free world requires free thinking and a free place — a library — in which to do it. Even in a digital world, and even in the next world yet to be imagined, the answer to The Question is No.

Libraries are not obsolete. Libraries will never be obsolete.

Katrine Watkins, a Shaler Area School District librarian, lives in Stanton Heights (katrine.watkins@gmail.com).

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