A question I have often gotten as a library enthusiast and information professional is why libraries? Aren’t these buildings full of books a quaint but antiquated relic of the pre-internet world? Do we need librarians? Can’t we get a robot to shelve books? What’s the Dewey Decimal System anyway? I promise that I won’t bore you with an explanation of the Dewey system, but I do want to discuss the role of the library in modern society. I suppose if I were to TL;DR this blog post, I would say that at the centre of every library’s raison d’être are the needs of the community and the user’s right to information.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will see some themes that emerge. I constantly discuss the community, the collection, the building and the features of any given Toronto Public Library branch. This is because libraries are a product of the community that they are in. Neighbourhoods that have a history of vibrant arts and music will have music rooms in their libraries, such as the Parliament Street Library. Areas with a high concentration of students will have increased study spaces and Special Collections for research, like the Toronto Reference Library or Lillian H. Smith Library. The non-circulating holdings (books you can’t check out) and non-collection holdings (not books) are influenced by the needs of the users of any particular library, in the context of the larger library system. So, you will find local history collections in neighbourhood libraries that have a high concentration of users interested in family and civic history. On a system level, you will find initiatives like eBook infrastructure, pedometer lending, digital innovation hubs and new initiatives like the portable internet hot spots.
Libraries are not simply rooms full of books that sit quietly waiting for someone to read them. Collections are not static. In fact, there is always great movement in and out of libraries, with new book acquisitions coming in and outdated texts being weeded out. Collections development focuses on reflecting the community that they serve. Thus, in neighbourhoods where there is a heavy concentration of Chinese and Portuguese speaking users, there will be a similarly large Chinese and Portuguese language collection (e.g. Sanderson Library). Communities that cater to underprivileged or newly immigrant populations will have adult literacy collections, multilingual collections, business collections and any other collections that the community needs. In my journey around the Toronto Public Library alone I have seen Multilingual Collections (including the only Nepali library collection in the City), LGBT Collections, Children’s Collections, Multilingual Children’s Collections, Local History Collections, Periodical Collections, Adult Literacy Collections, Business Collections, Special Collections, Canadiana Collections and Best of Collections. I should mention that this list is neither exhaustive nor does it include what you would expect from library collections like fiction and non-fiction sections.
There is a lot of care and concern put into every library planning, to ensure maximum usage and visibility for the library. Have you ever been to a library and thought “well this is a weird floor plan.” I certainly have. Take St. Lawrence Library for instance. It has an entire wall that faces high traffic on Front Street, yet its main entrance is tucked away in a residential neighbourhood. This is because when St. Lawrence was being built, the community was still emerging and Front Street was not a pedestrian friendly area like it is now. The opening of the Esplanade nearby eventually brought heavy foot traffic to the street, but when the Library was established, users mostly walked through these pedestrian courtyards.The needs of the users are so ingrained as a focus for libraries that it appears to make up the very fabric of the structures.
But of course, libraries are not simply places where you can only borrow books. They also offer many programming options like Yoga, Themed Book Clubs, Pod-clubs (Podcast Clubs), Business English Classes, English as a Second Language Classes, Financial Management Classes, Music Classes, Arts and Crafts Times, Story Times, Summer/Winter Camps, etc. Libraries are an indispensable source of programs for people of all walks of life.
Perhaps it’s professional bias, but it’s so clear to me that we need libraries now as much if not more than ever. In a world where people believe information provided to them in Facebook images (such as this one), libraries are a haven of dependable information and skills to evaluate the reliability of information is taught. Libraries have long been a champion for the individual’s right to information. Libraries were one of the first spaces to desegregate during the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. Library associations across the globe continue to discuss censorship, privacy and library ethics.
Now that we’ve discussed the nuanced and complex role that libraries have in the community, there’s another elephant in the room: librarians. Let’s define what a librarian does – they are responsible for evaluating the needs of the community, developing the collection plan, creating programming schedules, balancing budgets, providing reference services, discussing the practical applications of library ethics and information literacy and keep the library moving forward. The brave souls who make up the front line service, run the programming, occasionally shelve books, provide reference, check books in and out, catalogue books as well as generally keep the library running are library technicians.
So there’s my answer to “why libraries?” Because they are an indispensable part of any community and enrich the lives and infrastructure of everyone around them. Are you still with me? Anyone? Bueller?