The real problem that libraries face is that so many people are using them, and for such a wide variety of purposes, that library systems and their employees are overwhelmed.
According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, about half of all Americans ages 16 and over used a public library in the past year, and two-thirds say that closing their local branch would have a “major impact on their community.”Libraries are being disparaged and neglected at precisely the moment when they are most valued and necessary. In part it’s because the founding principle of the public library — that all people deserve free, open access to our shared culture and heritage — is out of sync with the market logic that dominates our world.
Poor and homeless library patrons don’t even consider entering these places.
They know from experience that simply standing outside a high-end eatery can prompt managers to call the police. This is not to say that libraries are always peaceful and serene.
The openness and diversity that flourish in neighborhood libraries were once a hallmark of urban culture. Though American cities are growing more ethnically, racially and culturally diverse, they too often remain divided and unequal, with some neighborhoods cutting themselves off from difference — sometimes intentionally, sometimes just by dint of rising costs — particularly when it comes to race and social class.
Libraries are the kinds of places where people with different backgrounds, passions and interests can take part in a living democratic culture. A lot of powerful forces in society seem to think so.In recent years, declines in the circulation of bound books in some parts of the country have led prominent critics to argue that libraries are no longer serving their historical function.For new parents, grandparents and caretakers who feel overwhelmed when watching an infant or a toddler by themselves, libraries are a godsend.In many neighborhoods, particularly those where young people aren’t hyper-scheduled in formal after-school programs, libraries are highly popular among adolescents and teenagers who want to spend time with other people their age.For many, the library is the main place they interact with people from other generations.For children and teenagers, libraries help instill an ethic of responsibility, to themselves and to their neighbors, by teaching them what it means to borrow and take care of something public, and to return it so others can have it too.Again and again, I was reminded how essential libraries are, not only for a neighborhood’s vitality but also for helping to address all manner of personal problems.For older people, especially widows, widowers and those who live alone, libraries are places for culture and company, through book clubs, movie nights, sewing circles and classes in art, current events and computing.Libraries don’t just provide free access to books and other cultural materials, they also offer things like companionship for older adults, de facto child care for busy parents, language instruction for immigrants and welcoming public spaces for the poor, the homeless and young people.I recently spent a year doing ethnographic research in libraries in New York City.