Libraries are about much more than books – and they always have been

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By Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein, Rebecca Joy Norlander, and Deb Robertson

Libraries have always had a broad educational mission, yet many of us associate libraries with a single specific tool of education: books. For us to fully appreciate the value of libraries, our public discourse needs to move beyond that image and recognize the full spectrum of services and programs that libraries provide.

This past Saturday, Forbes published – and quickly removed – an op-ed by economist Panos Mourdoukoutas arguing that Amazon has made libraries obsolete and irrelevant. Tom McKay at Gizmodo responded that libraries and stores are “entirely different ways of providing access to things.” And in the Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham pointed out that an awful lot of people still use libraries, but he focused in part on library cards and thus, by implication, on circulation. Both responses were spot-on, but neither corrected the over-emphasis on books.

They were far from the only ones responding incredulously. Mourdoukoutas’s tweet about the piece received thousands of responses from library professionals and library users. Among other critiques, they wrote about inequality and the digital divide and the breadth of library programs. Few if any of them assumed that books are the primary thing libraries provide.

New York Public Library president Anthony Marx said, back in 2014:  “Books are a 500-year-old delivery system for providing access to information. We aren’t getting out of the book business, but now we are providing new ways to access information.” Libraries of all types have begun shifting towards a more proactive and social model of learning from the older model of primarily self-directed and individual learning through, yes, books.

It’s true that libraries have historically been collections holders – but they are also centers for lifelong experiential learning, hubs for civic and cultural gatherings, and partners in community-wide innovation. The American Library Association’s Public Programs Office (ALA PPO) was founded in 1990 to support libraries in their role as centers for engagement and lifelong learning. Since then, we have seen enormous growth in library programs, backed by field-wide statistics. At the same time, we hear library staff members describe programs as increasingly central to their work.

Right now, we are in the middle of the National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment (NILPPA), a three-phase, eight-year research collaboration between ALA PPO and New Knowledge Organization Ltd., a social science think tank. This project aims to document the current landscape of library programs and the impact of those programs across the nation. NILPPA also explores the current state of professional development for library professionals in order to ensure that training is responsive to these shifts in library practice.

These changes are the most visible in public libraries, but they’re not just happening there. We see similar shifts in academic and school libraries, too. Books are part of the picture, but they’re not the whole story. Academic and school librarians tell us again and again that their job is to create space for learning, and that can look like anything from a makerspace to a multilingual film series to an Edible Book Festival.

Yet despite these changes, we know that the public image of libraries is lagging behind. When we talk to colleagues in the library world about NILPPA, they immediately see the need for it. But when we talk to people who aren’t regularly library users, they are surprised to hear about the professional shifts we see so clearly. That’s because public discourse continues to paint libraries as book lenders above all else. In some ways, Mourdoukoutas’s editorial was typical of this misunderstanding – and we will continue to overlook the value of libraries unless we correct it.

Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein, PhD, and Rebecca Joy Norlander, PhD, are senior researchers at New Knowledge Organization, a social science think tank. Deb Robertson is director of the American Library Association’s Public Programs Office.