Are Libraries Still Relevant? Of Course They Are

The modern library isn't made obsolete in a digital environment; it becomes a new point-of-contact. (Photo: Ermolaev Alexander/Shutterstock)

A 2016 Pew Research Center survey took an exhaustive look at libraries in the United States and how they're used in modern society. The survey had many take-aways — including that residents feel their libraries serve the needs of their community well, and that regular library users consider themselves lifelong learners. But the one metric that seemed to make the most media splash was data showing fewer Americans are visiting libraries than in decades past. This has led some to suggest that libraries are becoming irrelevant.

But don't turn in that library card just yet.

The Value of Libraries

Libraries have much more to offer than simply books on a shelf — although this, in and of itself, is still powerful. But as the Pew survey also found, most Americans have no idea of the myriad educational and community-related services that the local library has to offer.

For starters, many libraries lend more than just books. Some lend tools, cooking equipment, games, seeds and even fishing rods. Libraries also have study rooms, conference rooms, event hosting facilities and equipment such as projectors and 3-D printers available for use. They host book groups, assist in job searches, and offer classes covering every topic imaginable, from computer coding to foreign languages to paper embroidery. The story time programs for children offered at local libraries — often in multiple languages — are a critical component of early literacy in many communities. And that's just what's happening in the physical space.

The Internet Impact

tool library
Tools for rent, all in one place at the Toronto Public Library. (Photo: Toronto Public Library)

Some may think that the Internet will one day minimize the need for local libraries. But the library is not in competition with the internet, rather it serves as its point-of-contact. "The role of the library — to provide open and free access to information and programmatic experiences that build literacy and create a more informed society — is still true," says Christopher Platt, the New York Public Library's vice president for public service. "What has changed is that role now exists in a world of information that is expanding significantly with each new sunrise and must be served in a diverse and rapidly evolving assortment of media channels and technology," he added.

In other words, Americans need access to free information from the internet as much as they do from books, and the library is there to fill that need and help show people how to get it. It may be why libraries are the one thing millennials aren't killing.

It may sound hard to believe, but 15 percent of Americans do not have access to the internet. In a world that is absolutely exploding online, this creates a chasm between the haves and have nots like never before. The library provides free access to all that the internet has to offer, leveling the playing field. Several libraries now offer mobile Wi-Fi hotspots that patrons can take out on loan for up to a year.

Libraries in the Digital Age

In the digital space, libraries offer e-books, audiobooks, podcasts, online courses and databases, as well as a community space online via social media platforms. The New York Public Library even announced that it will offer streaming movie rentals, joining the likes of Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco's libraries.

Physical books, e-books, audiobooks and streaming movies are not mutually exclusive. They are simply different formats that people can use to engage with information.

Ebooks at the public library
E-books and e-book readers are free to check out from your local library. (Photo: Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

While it may be true that fewer Americans overall are visiting the brick-and-mortar sites, I would argue that many more than ever before are accessing the library's digital space to access the Internet, renew a book, take an online class or even just to stay up-to-date with community events via the library's Facebook page.

The library is becoming both a physical and a virtual space for knowledge, learning and community. As Angela Montefinise, a spokesperson for the New York Public Library, pointed out, the mission of public libraries — to provide knowledge, education and opportunity to all — hasn't changed at all. And in the digital age, that mission is more critical than ever.