Are Public Libraries Needed in Our Electronic World?

Are Public Libraries Needed in Our Electronic World?

I consider myself a late bloomer in the world of reading and literacy. In elementary school, like most of us, I presume, we had summer reading and, of course, redacted versions of literature by what some of us call "old white men" such as Beowulf, "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "Where I Lived, And What I Lived For." I will admit I found some of the stories interesting, but they were not what inspired my passion for reading and writing.

Believe it or not, one of the first books I read during elementary school that I liked was Jeff Kiney's Diary of Wimpy Kid and Dav Pikey's The Adventure of Captain Underpants. It was a significant feat for me personally. I chose books for myself. The books had neat drawings and felt more relatable to me as an elementary school student. I did not feel like I had to read for someone else, just for me. 

In a way, I think summer readings negatively influenced my views on the library. Because I was instructed to read something that I could have chosen for myself, the idea of a library sounded like a place to find books for school instead of books for me. Now, that is not to say this applies to everybody, but hopefully some of you can relate. 

Last month, my dad brought up an interesting question: Do we still need libraries? Are we still going to have libraries in the future? Now, I am a 25 year-old English undergraduate who normally had to read 4-6 books, articles, or any forms of content per week, so you must understand that his questions baffled me; however, my dad brought up some valid points. We have access to online books, articles, and magazines, and even online libraries. If we have access to information online, why would we need libraries and who would it even help?

It is true that the mediums (i.e. books, newspapers, magazines, and tape recordings) used to access research, information, and entertainment has adapted. Generation Z and Generation Alpha, especially, have grown attached to searching for information electronically. Today, it is no surprise to see students from elementary to university using a laptop, tablet, or smart phone to read or take notes for class. If anything, professors are adapting their teaching methods around technology by using Learning Management System (LMS) platforms like Kahoot! and Canva to keep students' attention. 

Again, like my dad said, why do we need public libraries if we have access to nearly everything online? 

Here is what I have to say about it. Libraries...

Are a Financial Lifesaver

Public libraries may not have every single book, but the books that they do have you borrow for free. Around 1700s, access to knowledge was expensive. To put it bluntly, buying books was entitled to high class society. Benjamin Franklin, who went from rags to riches, created a system that lets anyone borrow a book while also giving everyone access to an array of knowledge. As an English undergrad, borrowing books from the library saved me a few bucks, and if I liked the book I borrowed, I could always buy it later. Libraries were not just helpful to students like me but low-income families. 

For low-income families who cannot financially invest in computers and the software and malware programs alongside that, public libraries allow access to their computers and printing services for things like research, typing papers, calculating statistics, completing job applications, and even playing games. In some cases, public libraries will sometimes host events that do food drives, giveaway books and school supplies, host community celebrations, and much more. The library is like its own community center if you think about it.

But we cannot leave out one of the most important figures in the library. The one who encourages knowledge and education through an objective and ethical lens.

House Librarians

We need to give some appreciation to our librarians because that is not title that is given lightly. Just like doctors, they worked for that title. I like to compare them to Wan Shi Tong, a gigantic barn owl from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Tong describes himself as "he who knows 10,000 things." 

Wan Shi Tong from Avatar: The Last Airbender

Before Aang and his group could enter the library, Tong would not give knowledge without receiving knowledge. And do you know how librarians receive knowledge? Through us! Asking them questions about a topic not only helps them narrow our search, but adds to their encyclopedia or their "10,000 things" of knowledge. 

When researching a topic online, the search engine scans and scours the internet for relevant sources that contain the keywords inputted in the search bar. For example, if we are writing an essay on the migration of corn in North America and we type in "corn", the search engine can take you to an agricultural website about how to grow and harvest corn, an article about corn's nutritional value, or a side panel of the nearest grocery store that sells corn. Although you have to consider the different angles of your chosen topic, sometimes the web will take you down a rabbit hole; moreover, you, the researcher, must determine what sources are credible.

Librarians, on the other hand, advise material that is credible, relevant, and objectively informs you on the the requested topic. You want to be as clear and concise as possible when asking them for help. Just like the internet, librarians may not give you the right information if you do not tell them exactly what you are looking for. Librarians aim to lead you in the right direction rather than in multiple ones, and in order to do that, like Tong, you must give knowledge to receive knowledge.

The fun things about librarians is that they are resource themselves! Yes, I did not stutter. They are a resource, so do not forget to credit them when doing research. Librarians are not just the gatekeepers to knowledge but its history as well.

Have Access to Archival Documents

Writers, researchers, journalists, scholars, and even content creators, with permission, can access historical documents within the library. As we know, there are some historical documents that cannot be accessed online and the ones that are you have to pay for or be a current student at a university. If you go to the public library and state your case, the librarian can give you access for free rather than trying to request permission online. Just a little forewarning, libraries can reject your request to see certain documents regardless of their reasonings. If you want a good example of a researcher who has experienced this, check out Rebecca Hall's Wake. Understand that you will not always get what you ask for, especially online.  

Sacred documents are a primary example of information that cannot be found online. In 2023, the madrassa library in India was burned down by mob extremists which resulted in the loss of over 4,500 historical documents. Islamic scholar Syed Saifuddin Firdausi on BBC stated, "The damage caused to the building and furniture can be fixed. But the loss of knowledge and cultural heritage is permanent." Some libraries do not an have electronic backup of historical documents should they become lost or illegible. This is more of a reason to visit our public libraries.

Are public libraries here to stay? Saving money, preserving culture, and promoting knowledge seems like good enough reasons to keep them up and running. I also like the feel of a real book in my hands, but that is a topic for another time. 


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