Why Do We Still Need “libraries”? We Don’t!


A couple of years ago I reiterated the age old question – Why do we still need libraries? – but mostly in passing. I noted that both Leonard Kniffel, long time Editor and Publisher of American Libraries, and former ALA President Roberta Stevens have acknowledged that the major question of the 21st Century that they are most often asked is; “Why do we still need libraries?”.

They both express exasperation from being asked that question repeatedly, and I suspect there is hardly a librarian anywhere that has NOT been asked that same question. What this tells me is that the profession has no single or universal answer, AND, that there is no adequate answer – yet.

Why is that? Why are we – the profession – unable to answer that fundamental question? Is it because there is no single answer that satisfies everyone? Is it because the answer is too big for non-librarians to understand? Is it because it is the wrong question that has no correct answer? Yes. Yes. and Absolutely!

When we look at what the library is evolving into today – the 21st Century Library – we can easily answer the “Why…?” question with a “We don’t.” answer. BECAUSE that tired old question is asking why we need the “classic” library, the 19th Century Library, the “collection of books” library, the librarian as “gate keeper” library. And the correct answer is WE DON’T!

We absolutely DO NOT need that tired old stereotype library with the bunned, shushing librarian guarding a dusty collection of “books.” Society has no use for those obsolete libraries and librarians of the past that were adequate for the society of the past.

So, what is the solution to answering people’s question? What can the librarian profession of the 21st Century reply to that question? Try this.

“You’re right. Our community does not need the “library” that you’re thinking of, because that library doesn’t have:
• high-speed Internet terminals,
• access to more materials than the NYC Public Library,
• downloadable eBooks, eAudio books, music and videos,
• 3D printers for people to make their visions something they can hold in their hands,
• a virtual branch where you can access our information 24/7,
• a mobile app for you to take “it” with you wherever you go,
• mobile technology that can give you a virtual tour of our collection,
• innovative learning programs for virtually every interest,
• dynamic space for stimulating conversation,
• creative environments to stimulate your imagination,
• librarians to help you learn how to use all these services,
• user centered materials and services, and
• more challenges to your learning and entertainment than Disney World.

OK, well maybe that last point was a little over the top, but you get the idea.

The next time you hear that tired old question “Why do we still need “libraries”?” think about your library and answer with a flourish and an excitement that says –

We Don’t.

we need lib

21st Century Libraries!

19 Comments

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19 responses to “Why Do We Still Need “libraries”? We Don’t!

  1. Janice Flahiff

    Yes, Library as community/education centers..both virtually and as physical space.
    Knowledge indeed is power. But only when used (creatively?)…and libraries are, well, the best vehicle for this at the present, and most likely in the near future.
    Thank you.

  2. Lucy

    Another thought provoking post. :) We need libraries, but of the modern kind.

  3. So true Steve. It’s not about containers and gate keeping. It’s envisioning new means of access and ensuring that “the who needs libraries” question is answered with powerful arguments that cite specific instances of contributions to our community’s well being and success.

    • Thanks Bob. You’re exactly right.
      It finally struck me that “Why do we still need libraries?” was as outdated a question as the library to which it referred. Obviously, we don’t need those musty old libraries any more than we need musty old librarians just kidding.
      Librarians need to become armed with that powerful argument that defuses the questioner by agreeing that we “Don’t need that stereotypical traditional library you’re talking about.” and come back with the specifics of the kind of library we DO NEED!
      We should try to distill that powerful argument into an elevator pitch.

  4. Several years ago, I was asked this question by an elected official who worked as a bank branch manager. Instead of answering immediately, I asked him why we still needed bank branches. He had not considered the impact of the internet on his job until then. Since that time, more banks and branches have been closed or merged in this part of the county than libraries.

  5. rmkroneman

    For the most part you seem to be talking about people who are not yet senior citizens. I come in contact with a lot of them; one they don’t own computers and have no desire to own one. When I ask them about e-books, they ask what are they? They prefer the traditional ones. My children make fun of me bec. I don’t own a notebook and have no desire to own one.

    • Actually, what I’m talking about is the “main stream” library services. As we all know, now is a time when libraries are expected to meet the information needs of probably five generations, from those Digital Fugitives (“they don’t own computers and have no desire to own one”) to Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives. Not to be insensitive, but there will be less and less demand for non-digital information as time goes on, and more and more demand for more technology-based information. If the local library expects to remain relevant to its community it should be trending its information providing services in that same direction – toward technology-based information.

  6. Pingback: Why Do We Still Need “libraries”? We Don’t! | tnloveslibraries

  7. What an interesting blog topic! I agree with the new concept of a library offering technology driven services fulfilling various generation information needs. That question would cease to exist once the library is able to evolve and like a business give ‘returns on investments’ to society.

  8. Pingback: Why Do We Still Need “libraries”? We Don’t! | Innovation

  9. So many times I’ve heard the question asked “Why do we still need Libraries?” I’ve never heard anyone give an answer like this one yet. I agree totally that we don’t need the library of long ago with the shushing librarian, in today’s world there is no place for that. What we need now are the interactive libraries, the libraries that encourage the use of technology as much as the use of books. Libraries where children can express themselves and feel free to learn and grow. So no, I agree we don’t just need libraries, what we need today are LIBRARIES!!!!!!!

    • Thanks. It would be great if the profession in general could recognize the value in this answer. It would first disarm the person asking the question, then challenge their perception of “library.” We need to stop being immediately defensive or try to justify libraries, when what society needs are LIBRARIES! and a better understanding of the transformation that is underway.

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  12. I believe that all communities should have a library. I agree that libraries should not be like the traditional libraries where the librarian says Shhh and you cannot even breathe hard. It should be a place where learning takes place, where you can go and read a book in peace, where you can go for relaxing and above all a library should be a place where you can go and get information you cannot find online. There are things you look for on the interenet and simply cannot get what you’re lokking for. For me whenever I walk into a library I feel as though I can learn anything, just because of the atmosphere. Therefore we still need libraries.

  13. Reblogged this on Libraries and commented:
    What do you all think? Please reply. Maybe one of us could finally answe a question that is being asked all the time, even in our classes.

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