The Life and Death of Libraries

Across the country, public library systems are being gutted as states and localities slash their budgets. Libraries are an easy target – often seen as non-essential services. But our support of libraries is a test: do we believe communities are important? The truth is that public libraries don’t need to be protected from budget cuts; their budgets need to be expanded. Here’s why.In Illinois two weeks ago, the Alliance Library System laid off 22 staff people, shuttering entire functions that support libraries throughout its region. On the same day I was the keynote speaker for an online conference on innovation in public libraries, which attracted people from across the U.S. and other countries.When growing up in Upstate New York, we had a fine library for a small town. It sat right at the town’s center for everyone to see and use. But I do not pine for those days. Instead, as in so many communities, the bonds that once existed in many communities have been fractured. Nostalgia won’t save libraries or give them new purpose; only a bold and aggressive vision for the future will. During my talk, I made the case for libraries: at a time when so much of society is fragmented, when people often search for news and information that simply confirms their already-held beliefs and positions, when the demographics of communities are dramatically shifting, and when too many organizations are simply looking inward to find ways to perpetuate their mere existence, we need libraries to help re-engage and re-connect people.

Libraries are natural boundary spanning organizations in communities, and they’re needed now more than ever before. They can create safe spaces to bring people together across dividing lines to see and hear one another; help communities hold up a mirror to themselves about their history and culture, and the implications for the future; provide access to technology and online services that otherwise would be unavailable for many people; and teach children reading skills, love of books and knowledge, and the ability to engage their imagination.

Libraries are a vital strategic community investment – nothing less. And yet some people would have us believe they are mere add-ons, something nice to have, even a luxury. But we need them to help foster productive norms, relationships, spaces and conversations that are essential to a community functioning as a community. For many libraries this will mean adopting a new orientation – one of turning outward toward communities rather than just providing services.

Many good people have been working on this challenge, including the Urban Library Council and my good friend, Carlton Sears, a Harwood Public Innovators Coach, who is head of the public library system for Youngstown and Mahoning Valley in Ohio. Moreover, The Harwood Institute is forging a new partnership with Rutgers University School of Communications and Information to help prepare libraries and librarians to turn outward and strengthen communities and public life.

My point today is this: our call shouldn’t be to “protect” libraries as essential community assets; instead, we must actively grow and expand libraries to ensure that we have communities that work for all people.