No, Libraries Are Not Obsolete–But They Could Be

Libraries Are Not Obsolete. But They Could Be

When I first started book blogging, many bloggers were excited about the public library. They would share their favorite resources, talk about how much they appreciated library services, and generally spread library love. Many bloggers even seemed to be library workers. Over the years, however, I have seen enthusiasm for public libraries diminish. Often online narratives stress only the limitations of library services, or gloss over libraries as something we all “know about already” and should not talk up too much. Worse, however, I have even met library workers who seem discouraged about the state of public libraries.

Such subdued responses to the public library seem particularly odd in the book blogosphere, since so many book also tend to be library lovers. And it also seems odd when considered in light of the much-lauded 2019 Gallup survey showing that more Americans visited the library each year than visited the movies, sporting events, museums, and national parks. So I was intrigued when I read that one report actually contradicted the narrative that libraries are doing well, and suggested instead that library visits have been declining.

In April 2020, Publishers Weekly interviewed Tim Coates, author of the 2020 Freckle Report, which found a 25% decrease in the use of library services since 2011. In the interview, Coates mentions that the 2019 Gallup poll results did not match the statistics provided by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS); Gallup reported people visiting libraries 10.5 times a year, while the IMLS data reported people visiting only 4.1 times a year. Coates investigated and concluded that library visits really are declining and suggested that, to reverse the trend, libraries should focus on maintaining a robust print collection–still considered the backbone of most public libraries.

Interestingly, though the 2020 Freckle Report was based on data taken pre-pandemic, the 2021 Freckle Report (according to Publishers Weekly) offered a similar assessment. The 2021 report took data from the pandemic, including a rise in reading and in digital reading, but still found that library visits are declining. And it still recommended attempting to reverse the trend by investing in the print collection, arguing that e-books are a poor value for libraries considering their high costs and limited licensing agreements. (You can read more about e-book pricings for libraries here.) Coates also argued that investing in digital resources will further reduce the number of visits to library buildings (though, of course, one could counter-argue that the door count is not the only metric for success here).

Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of data on precisely what is happening with libraries–how often people use them, why they use them, if their attitude towards using them has changed, and so on. But I was intrigued by Coates’ argument for more of an emphasis on print materials, since I have argued myself that libraries seem plagued by an identity crisis. Are they food pantries? Conference centers? Recreation centers? Social services? My own belief is that libraries are still primarily associated by the public with books, and that libraries should emphasize their collections and work with partners instead of trying to duplicate services already offered by other local organizations. For me, though, emphasizing the collection could also include expanding digital access, even as I recognize that it is true that e-book licenses for libraries are often prohibitively expensive.

While I do celebrate all the great work libraries do, and have often used the catchphrase, “Libraries are more than books!” I still think that most people go to the library for books and computer access, and not particularly to attend yoga class or to hold meetings. This is only my own anecdotal experience, but the people at my local library who attend programs are all the same limited crowd, and even most book bloggers I have chatted with seem to use the library to borrow materials more than for anything else. So it makes sense to me that growing a relevant print (and digital) collection would perhaps draw more people back to the public library. In fact, the number one complaint I see from book bloggers is that their local library does not carry the books they want.

So this 2016 article in the Atlantic, which also found a decrease in library usage in the U.S, seemed to me to be the key to the issue. It reports that a 2012 report by the IMLS found that library usage is linked to funding. Libraries with more funding had more usage. That makes sense. Libraries with more funding can offer more–more books, more staff, more hours, more programs. People are more likely to use a resource that provides them with what they are looking for. All the bloggers who said they stopped going to their local library because of its small collection seem to be validating this data.

Of course, public library funding has been in jeopardy for years. Much of it disappeared during the 2009 recession (the effects of which the 2012 report referenced above no doubt captured). And much of it never returned, even as prices for everything have risen. But the idea that library usage might be linked to funding, and might even be tied to a robust materials collection, is one that can offer hope because it gives a way forward. Libraries do not have to offer limited hours, limited staffing, and limited books and programs. They could offer more, if the public made it a priority to fund them. Let’s just hope that our elected officials agree, before libraries really do become obsolete–not because they are not still needed, but because we have set them up to fail by neglecting to provide them with the necessary resources.

24 thoughts on “No, Libraries Are Not Obsolete–But They Could Be

  1. Jai Lynn says:

    Very compelling post!! It’s sad to see libraries struggling and they deserve the resources to stay afloat. I really can’t picture a world without them. Great job researching this and bringing it to attention!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    I saw on Twitter a couple weeks ago a poll about what people wanted in libraries and “quite spaces” was high on the list, and librarians were debating whether people “really” wanted that or if they just picked it because they associated libraries with quiet. So I guess there are some questions about whether some of of these numbers are self-reported. Maybe they think they go 10 times a year but they actually go 4, etc.?

    I agree though. I usually see people say they’d go more if the library had books they wanted. It’s a limited sample size, of course, but I’ve never seen someone say they’d go more if the library had a monthly judo class or whatever. Because, as I think we’ve discussed, if I want something specific like a recurring pilates or yoga class, my first instinct would be to look for local studios that offer that, not check the library.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think there could actually be a need for libraries to have more quiet spaces. And that could be specifically because libraries ARE associated with quiet and because there aren’t many other options for people to go somewhere and sit quietly and read or study for several hours. A cafe, yes, but then you have to pay for it and you still get the noise of people ordering and chatting. It actually makes sense to me that libraries might be filling a need if they had some more quiet areas. Because, yeah, if I need that I WILL check the library. If I want a concert or a yoga class, I’d check the local theatre or the local gym.

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      • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

        Yeah, I think it’s possible people really do want it to be quiet enough to focus on reading and researching, but a lot of librarians jumped to, “They can’t actually want that, right? I don’t see anyone researching here!” But then it could be circular! Maybe they aren’t staying there to read because it’s not quiet enough??

        Liked by 1 person

        • Krysta says:

          I imagine that, yeah, people try researching and realize that there aren’t any decent tables or quiet areas, and they leave. I usually advise my friends to try academic libraries if they want a quiet area because academic libraries are set up for that sort of thing, and many will welcome members of the public. But if it’s a public library and there is no program room, or the program room is right next to the study area, and there’s a live concert or story time, then, yeah, you’re not going to get much work done there.

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  3. Janette says:

    The future of libraries and public funding is so sad at the moment. I know that public services are stretched and we can’t have everything that we want but libraries seem so important to me. Sadly, it’s a vicious circle here in the UK, library hours get cut and stock is reduced because of funding, then less people use the library so things get cut even more. I keep banging the drum about how great they are and will continue to do so.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I can’t even count the number of people I’ve recently talked to who said variations of, “Oh, yeah, I used to go to the public library, but…” For me, the library is a lifeline! I get all my movies, books, and music there, plus WiFi, scanning, etc. It’s hard for me to imagine a life where I just decide the library is no longer worth it. But I hope the trend is not for people to stop going because, as you say, it becomes circular. People use the low traffic numbers to justify cutting funding, and then traffic dips more because there’s not as much worth going for.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Ella says:

    I think the problem with library usage is mostly based on promotion. They often have great services but most people don’t really know about it because its not promoted enough. I also think that they should cater to the audiences in those areas. For example, if there are a lot of kids around, then mostly cater to that population. If there are a lot of college students, then focus on study areas and access to electronic and printing services and so on. Books are definitely important, but again, the type of book provided should be based mostly on the population.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I think it’s hard to promote everything because there is just SO MUCH. I remember during the height of the pandemic, my library was blasting social media with all their digital services and people were commenting complaining that the library should have e-books. The library had been blasting their e-book apps for weeks! But if the people weren’t looking at the social media on those days, I guess they would miss it.

      And then I think, too, a lot of the stuff the library promotes I might not need at the moment. Like I might find it vaguely interesting that the library has a new 3D printer or Consumer Reports or something, but if I don’t need a 3D printer or Consumer Reports at the moment they promote it, I’d probably forget about it.

      And then there’s also the issue that a lot of promotion for my library at least is via social media and their newsletter. If you don’t care enough about the library to sign up for these things in the first place, you’d definitely miss a bunch of the promotions. They do sometimes take out print ads and stuff, but I guess your mileage may vary with how many people still read the paper.

      I don’t know. It’s an interesting problem. How to promote to people not already actively invested in and following the library. I have to agree with you that not many libraries have solved this puzzle!

      And I agree, too, that libraries probably need to be collecting and analyzing more data about their demographics so they can target their services. It does seem like there’s a general lack of data out there and a lot of libraries are just trying to…guess? But hearing anecdotes from the people who already walk in the door isn’t the same as targeting all the people who never go in.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Mint says:

    I agree, I think libraries trying to become other things is hurting them in the long run. Maybe it gets more feet in the door for now. But when the library becomes associated with a food pantry or community centre, they’ll naturally be compared to the other thing. And the library will probably lose in that comparison.

    More books – print and digital – would be fantastic. Digital resources can be especially great for increasing accessibility, as not everyone can interact with print resources in the same way. Basically, improving the things that people most associate with libraries first – and then adding on extra things or referrals to other resources if the budget allows.

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    • Krysta says:

      That’s a good point! A program/organization dedicated fully to doing something like handing out food is arguably going to do it better than the library. I understand that people want the library to be a one-stop shop and that brining services there will potentially reach more people. But then I think, if there is to be a food pantry, it needs to be run by food pantry staff who are partnering with the library and have more expertise in the area.

      Yeah, I don’t totally agree with the idea that digital books are bad for libraries, as outlined by the report. Yes, the PRICES are bad, and most libraries get better deals on print books. However, I don’t agree that the door count is the only metric for whether a library is successful, and I don’t think libraries should shrink digital collections just to force people to enter the building. Accessibility is a huge part of what libraries strive for, and digital collections are a part of that! I think circulation numbers would be a measure for success, too!

      I know my opinion is not popular and the, “Libraries are more than books!” slogan is catchy (and something I say a lot myself). But I think “more than books” should pertain more to access to information and learning, and not so much disco night. Or, at least, we have to think about what disco night is achieving. It got people in the door, yes. But did those people check out books or use other library resources? I really don’t think just saying, “A lot of people walked in the building this month,” is meaningful when considered in light of a library’s mission.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Yes a lot of the issues with libraries is linked to funding. They don’t fund them and reduce the hours so people go less- then that’s used as an argument to fund them less and reduce the hours even more. And I’m discovering that it doesn’t matter which side of the political aisle the council (who run libraries here) are on- both see it as fair game for cuts. What I’m learning as well is that in councils there is money for people in the offices- but good luck getting anything for frontline staff (eg social workers). It’s a horrible state of affairs.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, it’s all a cycle and it’s maddening! Of course people don’t use the library once the local gov cut all the funding! I sometimes don’t know if these cycles are created deliberately to justify closing/defunding libraries or if people truly can’t see the link.

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      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        I think unfortunately in the UK it’s deliberate. So much of our public sector has been privatised for profit. The problem that libraries raise for the people that think bin collection (and the like) should be profitable is that libraries were never meant to turn a profit. There’s been an obsession in libraries for about 25 years with income generation- but the problem is that of course educational and family services don’t generate income. So they don’t know what to do about that and see them as losing money

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        • Krysta says:

          I…have never heard of people thinking libraries should turn a profit? I think the point of libraries is that the “profit” comes from having an educated populace, but what do I know?!

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          • theorangutanlibrarian says:

            Haha I know!! I think they’ve finally dropped the term “income generation” from targets (literally since COVID), but knowing people that have worked in the service for 20-40 years, it really was something they put as top priority! They would get in trouble for not making enough money/meeting financial targets… It’s really insane when you remember the point is free books and a free space for the public. I was shocked when I joined

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    • Krysta says:

      Also, yeah. I wanted to add that I read the board minutes of various local libraries and they will often mention that the local gov workers got a raise or a COLA, but the library staff didn’t, even though the library staff are usually considered employees of the local gov, whether it’s the city or county gov.

      Like

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