Has the Internet Really Made Libraries Obsolete?

 

libraries are not obsolete

It is an argument  made since the Internet came to dominate American life: we no longer need libraries full of dusty old tomes because now everyone can use the Internet.  However, these arguments ignore the reality of what libraries are, the services they provide, and the people they serve.  Below, I demonstrate why libraries continue to remain necessary for our communities.

Not Everyone Has Access to the Internet

A fact sheet published by the Pew Research Center in February 2018 shows that about 75% of Americans have broadband Internet at home.  10% of smartphone users access the Internet only through their phone, meaning that the number of Americans with Internet access is probably slightly higher than 75%.  Indeed, a March 2018 report by the Pew Research Center shows that only 11% of Americans do not use the Internet at all–some because they were not interested, some because they thought their age meant they were too old to learn, and 19% of those 11% because Internet or a device to access it were too expensive.  Despite the gains the in Internet usage across the country, racial minorities, individuals with low incomes, and individuals who have less education or live in rural areas are still less likely to access the Internet.

Individuals who oppose funding libraries may argue that 11% of Americans is a small percentage and that their needs do not warrant government spending on providing them services.  However, libraries exist to promote equal access.  It is their mission to provide services and opportunities to the community that would otherwise not exist.

Consider that, even if an individual wanted to access free WiFi at a restaurant or a cafe, they would have to pay something to enter the door and justify their presence in a business–even if they only purchase a coffee.  They also would need to own a personal device to access the Internet.   And accessing the Internet is largely what they would be able to do–they likely would not be able to print, fax, scan, or copy because cafes do not provide these services. If they needed help troubleshooting their device or learning how to use a mouse or creating an email or accessing their tax forms, the cafe staff likely would not be available to help them.  Libraries, however, allow individuals to enter and stay without paying, provide devices to patrons, and are available to offer technical support.  In short, they offer services no one else does.

Not Everything Is Available on the Internet

Opponents of funding libraries often argue that libraries are now irrelevant because “everything is on the Internet.”  However, even if an individual can access the Internet, not everything is available there quite yet.  It is quite possible to run a search for a specialized or obscure topic and come up with few relevant sources.  Even if you ran a search on a topic that might seem popular, such as local ghost stories, you might not find a lot– you would still be better off going to your local bookstore and searching the shelves.  Some topics simply are still more available in print than online.  This is especially true of the scholarly, peer-reviewed sources many students are asked to use in academia.

Much of What the Internet Has to Offer Is Not Free

We also have to consider that much of what we can access on the Internet is not free.  For instance, students asked to find peer-researched sources will likely have to find a print book or an article from a journal.  Print journals are now digitized for easier access–but they require a paid subscription.  Libraries typically pay for these so their patrons do not have to.  Non-academic periodicals also often require subscriptions.  Libraries pay for magazines and newspaper so patrons never have to run up against a pay wall while trying to follow national politics or read the latest on their favorite celebrities.

Besides periodicals, libraries also offer a range of resources that may include: genealogy and ancestry programs, language courses, film streaming, Lynda or Universal classes, music subscriptions, and academic databases for students.  Many of these program and services are available elsewhere on the Internet, but not all of them are free.  Or perhaps some of the free versions are not as thorough as the paid versions.

And what about books?  Yes, there are thousands of books available online free and legally.  However, if someone wanted to read something like Harry Potter or another book that has not gone out of copyright they would, again, have to pay.  The argument that we do not need libraries because we have the Internet assumes that individuals have enough money to pay for everything the Internet has to offer.  For many individuals, this is simply not true.

The Cost of Libraries

Oftentimes, opponents of libraries will suggest that libraries are too expensive.  However, when we take into account all of the services libraries offer from books, music, films, and video games to literacy programs, STEAM programs, and community forums, it is evident that libraries are, in reality, priceless.  Currently, taxpayers in my city pay under $20 each year to support the library.  Checking out one book, watching one film, or even using the Internet a couple times, already means that I have saved money.  There is no way I could personally afford to read a hundred books each year, watch a dozen films, take a couple classes, pay for monthly Internet, and do research, all on my own.  I simply could not afford it. Offering all these things for under $20 is the possibly the best use my city makes of my tax dollars every year.

37 thoughts on “Has the Internet Really Made Libraries Obsolete?

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I don’t have money to buy myself many books so most of my book purchases are gifts. Also, I usually read 100 books a year. Whenever someone tells me I don’t need the library, I want to point out that I don’t have thousands of dollars to buy books, but, my giving my less than $20/yr in taxes allows me to band together with my community to give us all access to these resources. It’s a tax I’m happy to pay.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Jonathan Scott Griffin says:

    Agreed. Libraries are far from obsolete. In fact, I have been reading articles that say many young people are using them more than the older generation. Frankly, I retain more information when I read a book instead of a website. I think it’s why books endure, including libraries. However, as much as I love to read, libraries have also been smart by having other forms of media for checkout, such as movies.

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    • Krysta says:

      I’ve seen those studies, too! My first instinct is to speculate that, in the U.S., the recession has hurt young people’s salaries so that they may actually need to use the free resources at the library more. Even though the economy is supposed to have recovered, I still see young people struggling to find full-time work or to get decent salaries. They’re playing catch up, trying to make what generations before would have been making at that age.

      And there are studies suggesting that reading a physical copy is better for longer works and aids in retaining information. So I don’t think we’ll see physical books disappear soon!

      I agree. DVDs and video games fly off the shelves at my library. They are truly going beyond books to offer access to many resources for the community.

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  2. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    When people argue that all information is available online, I particularly think they haven’t been to a university/academic library for a while. Yeah, you don’t really need to go to the public library if you generally want to know about whales or if you want to find out how to grow tomatoes or learn to knit or something, but there is so much specialized and obscure knowledge in academic libraries that is not available online at all, even behind a paywall.

    (Also, these people seem to not be thinking of fiction when they say no one needs libraries? Yeah, popular novels are “online” in the sense I could buy an ebook, but they’re free at the public library!)

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I’ve spent days and even weeks researching topics there is barely any information on, even in paid subscription journals. Sometimes you can find a few sentences on a topic in an obscure book published decades ago. (How to get that book? I’d try interlibrary loan first!) Sometimes the reality is that you’d probably have to track down primary sources and write your own article/book from them. (Those primary sources may be stored in a library!)

      When people say “Everything is online,” they are often talking about general topics. Or they may be thinking that the source of the information doesn’t matter. That is, if I want to learn about whales, any old book from the library will do. But some people actually need a specific volume/edition about whales. In this case, the book might be out of print and interlibrary loan would be a great option to have.

      And, yes! Exactly! Some stuff buy be available online–if people have the ability to pay. Not everyone does.

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  3. Holly says:

    This was a question we asked constantly when I worked at my local public library in high school, and answer was always a resolute WE NEED LIBRARIES. The thought of getting rid of free/low-cost access to literature and media would most certainly be a step in the WRONG direction! Great post!

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    • Krysta says:

      I truly can’t fathom the motivations of people who want to stop funding libraries. They must be living a really isolated bubble to believe that everyone has the ability to pay for all the resources the library has to offer. Some students actually don’t have computers or Internet access at home, but have homework that must be submitted through online accounts or papers that need to be typed up and printed. Libraries are invaluable for some people!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Vee @ Under The Mountain says:

    The library you’re describing sounds incredible but sadly in the UK we just don’t have many of those things. I don’t know if my local library has any computers and comparing that with the large city where I used to live, we did have computers but were hardly every able to use them – they were usually booked up weeks in advance by people who just wanted to sit on Facebook etc.

    Books are great but I truly can research any topic needed online, it’s just about learning SEO and once you know what to search for to bring up the information you need it’s much easier than having to search the 3 shelf history section that hasn’t been updated in a few years.

    As for magazines and newspapers I’ve never seen any here, either in my small library or in the one in my city. That would be amazing but I don’t think they see it as profitable. Events are usually for young children and very early morning so we don’t bother to be honest.

    I can see where you’re coming from but at least in England libraries need to be brought into the 21st century and be more on top of new releases and current trends. A lot of shelves have not been updated in a long time and the only frequently updated section tends to be adult fiction, a subject I’m not interested in.

    Vee @ Under The Mountain

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    • Krysta says:

      That’s really sad! I’ve been to various libraries in the U.S. and some offer more services than others. In particular, big city libraries tend to offer more materials and online resources. However, most have had the basics of books, DVDs, and computer and Internet access. In the case of libraries that can’t offer much, I would argue that the library hasn’t been made obsolete by the Internet, but perhaps by a lack of vision or of funding. Libraries are invaluable for community members who can’t afford to buy their own books, computers, or Internet access. I think the fact that your one library computers were constantly books attests to the need people have for that resource, even if it is just to connect with their friends and family via Facebook.

      I have found that it’s easier for me to search general topics on the Internet. Specialized topics have often left me with little to go on besides a few paragraphs in books published decades ago. In this case, I would need the library to get an out-of-print book for me. (Far cheaper than perhaps buying hundreds of dollars for an old used book!) Sometimes I’ve searched obscure historical figures and realized the Internet is turning up little. I’d have to do independent research with primary sources–some of which might be housed by libraries.

      Basically, it depends what you’re looking for, but libraries are invaluable for students and academics researching obscure topics. It’s far easier to have a library track down weird materials than for someone to try to find and pay for them all themselves. Even with topics that have some stuff online, I’ve often found that published books are more thorough and more credible. (I’d rather read a book from a press that has an obligation to check facts than from some website with no credentials listed.) In this case, I need the library because I can’t afford to purchase tons of books by myself.

      But, yes, I see where you’re coming from. I think the libraries you describe need more funding and then they will attract more interested patrons! However, it is admittedly increasingly difficult for libraries to find that funding. And then it becomes a vicious circle. Because of the lack of funding, community leaders see the library as obsolete–and then don’t offer more funding to improve it.

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  5. (Danielle) Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

    Great post! I have to say being somewhat disabled and no longer able to drive, it is the opposite for me. The internet has made the library more accessible 💗 I can login and stay current and partake in discussions and monitor events via their website as well as access many titles via Libby or Overdrive. All of which I am super thankful for sense there are weeks I am stranded. But I can see the growing concerns in areas where libraries may not have the funding or capabilities to take advantage of the internet trends and marketing. Loved this!

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    • Krysta says:

      Oh, I love how you put it! The library and the Internet are not necessarily in competition. Rather, the library is using the Internet to become increasingly relevant! My library has even started experimenting with live streaming events for patrons who can’t make it, which I think is great!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. PerfectlyTolerable says:

    Great Post! You make a lot of really good points! I used the library all the time as a kid. I went multiple times a week! I haven’t been to a library in years tho, it just seems like so much work when I can just order my books online. But for a mom of 2 with kids reading middle grade books, the library was the ideal solution!

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I think families find libraries particularly useful as you can check out tons of books and take advantage of storytimes and other programming. I know some families check out mayb 30 picture books a week–that would add up over time if they were to purchase them all!

      Like

  7. Nicole (Read. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.) says:

    Agreed! My local library is amazing! Obviously for the books, but they also host events for the community, and even have passes for nearby museums that you can borrow instead of having to pay entry. It’s full every time I walk in there, and I can’t imagine not having a library in town.

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  8. Elspeth says:

    Anyone who thinks we don’t need libraries doesn’t read books. Or doesn’t have kids. Or both.

    Besides the fact that we spend several hours a month in the library, the kid programs in most of them provided an invaluable outlet when our kids were younger.

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  9. DoingDewey says:

    I’d have a hard time not just laughing at anyone who made this claim. For me, the experience of going to a library is pretty valuable in and of itself. I also think all the points you make in your article are really good arguments in favor of the library, particularly your list of all the services they offer in addition to simply lending books.

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    • Krysta says:

      Usually I see these claims from local politicians. It must be nice to live in a bubble so secure that they cannot imagine people who don’t have the money to buy all these resources for themselves. Or perhaps they just don’t read or see the value of reading? All concerning for people representing their communities!

      Like

  10. ofmariaantonia says:

    While the internet is great, it’s not the same as a library. I love my library. I get the majority of my reading material there. I just don’t understand people who don’t use libraries!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, and I love that the e-collections help expand accessibility! Patrons who can’t make it into the library or prefer different formats are still covered!

      Like

  11. Charvi says:

    Great post! While I’ve hugely been dependant on internet for my books lately I will never forget that it was a library where I first got a book. The library was where I read hundreds of books and exhausted the children’s section only to go on to an even bigger section and read like crazy. If it weren’t for libraries I don’t think I would be reading so much at all

    Like

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