Today’s post over at The 2st Century Library blog got me to thinking, particularly this remark-
“Second is the lack of leadership within the profession to give direction and give a believable and understandable answer to that nagging question ‘Why do we need libraries in the 21st Century?’ At a recent state library association conference, ALA President Molly Raphael stated that she still gets this question far too often, but she didn’t offer an answer.”
My question is this (as the title of this post reflects): Does there have to be a “need” for (public) libraries to justify their existence? Are we asking ourselves the wrong question? Maybe we don’t “need” libraries, at least not in every community, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them.
There are lots of things we don’t “need” that enrich our lives–museums, music, the arts, and the like–does that mean that we shouldn’t have these things? Not everybody uses libraries and not everybody goes to museums or the theatre or the orchestra. But for those that do, these services provide sustenance that goes beyond need. I don’t think anyone would argue with the statement that it is “desirable” to have services that enrich our lives. Some would argue that “should have” is no less compelling than “need” in a world where everything we “need” is sometimes only a click away.
It is very true that we do not need taxpayer-funded libraries in the same way that we need taxpayer-funded fire, police, and ambulance services. Libraries can change lives, but I doubt they save many, at least not literally. What libraries do, though, is create a foundation of literacy in a community. In my mind, a library stands as a visual representation of the importance of freely accessible information, materials, meeting space, programs, education, and the like to the people it serves. It’s a symbol of a civilized society.
You can see almost any great work of art online, but is that the same as seeing that work in a museum, up close, where you can study it? Maybe you can listen to the orchestra on a live stream, but does that take the place of sitting in the audience? You can access almost any information you want from your home on the computer or on your favorite mobile device. But how does that usurp the importance of the library as place?
I’m not saying that there isn’t a real need for libraries, especially in some communities. But a need-based argument is not the only argument that matters.
Do we need libraries? The answer can be yes, no, or maybe depending upon the circumstances. Should we have libraries? Yes. Why? Because they enrich the lives of those who use them and strengthen the foundation of the community for those that don’t.
Can libraries and library services be improved? Absolutely. Should we, as librarians, work toward that goal? No. We as librarians need to work toward that goal. Because in the end that is what will make the difference. And that is what will make the question of need go away.