The Vital Role of Libraries

The Vital Role of Libraries

October 12, 2017

Libraries, as downright primitive as they can sometimes seem, with the very word conjuring images of towering, dusty book-filled shelves, lingering Dewey Decimal System cabinets and rolls of microfiche, are still essential. This seems to invite disbelief in the Age of Screens: convenient, maybe. Cozy and inoffensive, perhaps. But essential?

What is the essential role of libraries? Why can we not consider retiring these venerated dinosaurs and moving onward?


In a word: community. Whether a small town in the country, a thriving elementary school, a never-sleeping metropolis or a local university, libraries are an essential part of each, offering a communal hub of information, resources and learning. In the instance of public libraries, they also provide a safe space for all, regardless of background, creed or means.

They offer a place where anyone can freely access good information; a respite in a world where we are so often bombarded with selective information that always seems to demand something from us: buy this, think that, react now, do something! They offer a place of resources for people to come and write their resumes, look for jobs, take classes, do schoolwork, access movies, become better readers, or simply daydream and fill their minds. They are treasure-troves of facts and knowledge, but also of fiction, which is the gateway drug to reading and literacy.

A recent conversation with a schoolteacher in a rural area revealed that nearly 30% of her elementary students come to her not able to write their own names. It’s a percentage that she’s watched increase. No matter what version of iPhone it may seem like “everyone” is obsessing about, it’s important to know that something as basic and essential as literacy is not a guarantee in our country. The reverse is still very, very real and can be directly correlated with crime rate.

This view of libraries as dusty, ponderous, outdated institutions is being flipped on its head. They are often evolving entities, incubation chambers of active learning and experimental places where new styles and methods can be tried. A central element of learning institutions, libraries are now becoming the forerunners in creating truly customized learning experiences. They are potentially one of the few public places where neurodiversity (autism, ADHD, dementia) can be recognized and addressed with customized adjustments to the surrounding environment to facilitate learning. Yes, there is already a library where such a space is being built.

In the world of education, libraries are also good business.

Gen Z, the cohort hot on the heels of Millennials, comprises roughly 60 million children. These kids are the most tech-tuned, media-devouring, socially aware group yet, and most importantly, they (and their parents) have more choice regarding their own education than any previous group. Institutions now compete to attract and retain students. More imperatively than ever before, schools must differentiate themselves from their peers. Branding is now a vital element in many schools, and communal spaces like libraries are where these efforts can shine the most. Libraries are crucial hubs to a school’s identity, character, mission and history, in addition to being gathering spots.

Perhaps most encouraging of all, as they adapt and even become the first barrier-breakers in many respects, libraries are bustling with activity. They truly are spaces where people congregate, exchange ideas, search for information and engage with the community. They are not on the decline in this age of information and technology. Far from it.

For many of us, there is a sense of nostalgia rooted in memories of our libraries. And with their continued evolution, it seems that many more generations to come will enjoy the illuminating learning experience that only libraries can offer.

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