Public Libraries: Dead or Alive?

by West Bend Library on 2019-07-26 12:00:00

This just in: public libraries are going extinct. At least, that’s what dozens of mainstream news articles would lead you to believe. According to much of the media, libraries are relics from a bygone era, made worthless in the modern age. This notion is furthered by headlines like “The End of the Library,” “Libraries are Obsolete,” and “What the Death of the Library Means for the Future of Books.” Other articles even claim that the library’s supposed demise is a good thing, saying “Don’t Mourn the Loss of Libraries-The Internet Has Made Them Obsolete.”

Recent studies on the matter seem to confirm this disheartening belief. For instance, polls by Pew Research Center shows that library attendance has decreased slowly but steadily from 2012 to 2015. In 2012, 53% of Americans said they visited a library or bookmobile at least once in the past 12 months. Three years later, only 44% of people reported going. Though now a few years old, this research evidences that the public usage of libraries is starting to dwindle.

Of course, this begs the question: if public libraries are really ‘dying,’ what’s killing them? Most of the articles on the subject reach the same verdict, citing the rise of the Internet as the downfall of the library. After all, any book you could possibly want, and any information you could possibly need, is just a click away on your phone, computer, or tablet. In this way, the digital age has eradicated the need for the public library-or has it?

Though the articles mentioned previously are doubtless well-researched and thought-out, most of them fail to consult the people who know most about the subject: the librarians themselves.

When the staff of the West Bend Library is asked if their profession was truly ‘dying,’ their answer is an impassioned “no.” Instead, they maintain that the library is changing with the times - and the patrons’ shifting needs.

In the words of teen librarian Hannah Kane, “libraries are really good at evolving.” To illustrate, she explains that in early America, libraries used to charge patrons membership fees. However, librarians soon realized that they could reach a greater number of patrons if they removed the membership cost. In this way, they became free. This shows that historically, libraries have always changed to fit the needs of their patrons. Thus, it’s reasonable to assume that modern libraries will gradually adapt to our modern needs. In Hannah’s opinion, this evolution has already begun in libraries all over the world.

The West Bend Library is no exception; as the times change, it has always made efforts to stay relevant. For instance, children’s librarian Terika Koch says that the library often “add[s] programming to meet current trends.” As an example, she mentions, “now that STEM is popular with parents and youth, we do STEM programming for children, and circulate a variety of STEM kits, including robots.” According to Nancy Larson, the outreach librarian, the children’s events in particular helps the library remain populated. She says that, “having a very strong children's program keeps the adults coming to the library.” Moreover, these programs teach children to value and enjoy the library from a very young age.

The marked popularity of these events indicate that the library is not dying; rather, it’s thriving. Terika goes on to say that since she started working for the West Bend Library seven years ago, the children’s programs have never declined in popularity. If anything, they have become more popular recent years. Terika recalls that within the past week, ninety people came to a children’s story hour, and over five hundred people attended a family animal show - both impressive numbers for our relatively small town. The remarkable amount of people attending events like these shows Terika that our library is still very much alive.

The wide range of materials the library offers also helps to keep it this way. In the words of Sara Davister, adult services and reference librarian, “it’s not just about the books.” Instead, she points out that the library also offers DVDs, CDs, magazines, activity kits, study areas, meeting rooms, computers, and printers (both 2-D and 3-D.) These resources are likely to remain in use for years to come, even if printed books do go out of style.

Hannah adds that “some libraries are doing very specific, local collections.” For instance, she says, some carry local music or area-specific history books that aren’t available anywhere else. Some even have collections of oddly shaped cake pans that patrons can rent out. Essentially, libraries haven’t survived this long by just providing books. Instead, Hannah says that they exist “to provide access to things people might not otherwise have access to, no matter what they are.” 

Though these materials and events are doubtless important for the continued success of the library, that’s not the only thing the institution has to offer. Nearly every staff member that was interviewed mentioned the value of the library as a community center. In their opinion, its unique accessibility makes for the perfect place to bring people together. After all, it’s free to attend, it caters to all ages, and it has countless different uses, from children’s story hours to adult programming to senior book clubs. What other place could be utilized by such a range of people? In Nancy’s words, the accessible nature of the library makes it “a very important hub of community activity.” 

According to many major headlines, the library is no more than an antiquity, soon to go extinct as modern technology takes its place. But according to the staff at the West Bend Library, it’s a thriving social center that promotes not only education and literacy, but community involvement as well. In the information age, the library is simply doing what it has always done throughout the years; it’s “evolving to meet a changing community,” says Terika.

“I don’t think that the passionate people will let their libraries die,” Nancy speculates. It’s clear that the West Bend Library is full of these people-so don’t expect it to vanish anytime soon. 

Works Referenced:
Clausing, Jane, and Samantha Watson. “Interview with library technician.” 22 July 2019.
Davister, Sara, and Samantha Watson. “Interview with adult services and reference librarian.” 22 July 2019.
Kane, Hannah, and Samantha Watson. “Interview with teen librarian.” 22 July 2019.
Koch, Terika, and Samantha Watson. “Online interview with youth services librarian.” 22 July 2019.
Kraus, Darci, and Samantha Watson. “Interview with library head of technical services.” 22 July 2019.
Larson, Nancy, and Samantha Watson. “Online interview with outreach librarian.” 23 July 2019.
Rainie, Lee. “Americans, Libraries and Learning.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 6 Feb. 2017, www.pewinternet.org/2016/04/07/libraries-and-learning/.