Columnist Tim Worstall, a British contributor to the Forbes website, made a controversial suggestion last month that provoked a good bit of tongue-wagging and online chatter in response.
Worstall proposed we not merely cut funding to our libraries, but do away with them entirely and issue Amazon Kindles to every citizen instead, each with an unlimited subscription.
“For it’s well known that only a small fraction of the population actually reads books at all,” Worstall blithely explained, adding libraries became state enterprises because of “the specific attributes of books as physical objects in limited supply in any one location” and that, hence, “perhaps the habit of having these physical libraries with physical books also no longer needs to exist?”
Let’s set aside for a minute the wide-eyed technological and free-market utopianism inherent in Worstall’s argument, along with the limitations on what you could read even with an “unlimited” Kindle subscription that brings you only 600,000 titles and the fact a large number of people still prefer to read things printed on good, old-fashioned paper (and research has shown readers absorb fewer details and retain less information when they read from a Kindle rather than paper). Stories that appeared in the Observer-Reporter on Sunday and Monday outlined how libraries in our community, and elsewhere, still are valuable assets and are evolving into institutions that offer a great deal more than dusty volumes that are hastily thumbed at term-paper time.
In fact, one has to wonder if Worstall has even visited a library lately.
On Sunday, Staff writer Karen Mansfield detailed how, along with books, libraries are becoming all-purpose media centers where patrons can download an assortment of material, including books and magazines. For people still wedded to consuming their movies and music from artifacts, there are DVDs and compact discs. By teaming up with other libraries, patrons are no longer restricted to what the library down the block has on its shelves.
Libraries are also places where people and community organizations can meet and individuals can freely access computers and the Internet. As Mansfield’s story noted, in the overwhelming majority of the communities in which they are located, libraries are the only place where the public can use computers and get on the Internet at no cost.
According to Peggy Sang, the librarian at Canonsburg’s Frank Sarris Public Library, “People still check out a lot of books; our circulation is higher than ever, especially in the children’s department. But we are so much more than books.”
Following Mansfield’s story, on Monday, a front-page story by Joelle Smith explored how young people are discovering the basics of computer programming at the Peters Township Public Library through robots developed at Carnegie Mellon University.
It goes without saying the tremendous advances in our technology over the last couple of decades changed the way we work and the way we spend our off-hours.
Not many of us have pen pals anymore, few have record stores within an easy drive and no one has to go searching for change at a phone booth. But libraries shouldn’t join this list of things that are either extinct or teetering on the edge of being so. They’ve lately experienced funding difficulties, but libraries shouldn’t be allowed to vanish from the landscape.
Kristin Frazier, the librarian at Burgettstown’s library, eloquently summed it up: “We need libraries. Where else can you preserve a wealth of information in a location that’s accessible to everyone? I worry that people won’t realize how important we are until we’re not around.”