When it comes to public libraries, most of us cannot see the forest for the … well, books. The Feb. 3 article “Libraries adapt to a post-book world,” placed a large emphasis on print circulation declines and a rise in e-book downloads over recent years at metro-area libraries. The article suggests a mission-changing landscape.
Some may think e-books and smartphones signal the end of libraries. But when we are dazzled by new technology, we miss the enduring purpose of libraries. While there is no question that the brand of libraries is books, it is also true that books have never been our business.
The point of access to books and information, after all, is not access per se; it is what we do with information that helps us learn, create, prosper, self-govern and have fun. Our basic service is not books or information access, but rather learning, discovery and exchange.
Your public library is the center of your community’s learning network. At the St. Paul Public Library, our business is St. Paul and our priorities are St. Paul’s learning needs.
Public libraries have been remarkably adaptable institutions. For many decades, print material was the primary tool of learning; access to government and commerce was in person, by paper or over the phone. Today, the tools of learning and access are changing dramatically and quickly. Libraries never have been about a particular medium. Over the decades, we have made available bulletin boards, websites and mobile apps; encyclopedias, telephone books and the Internet; print books, audiobooks and e-books; LPs, CDs and digital music; 8-millimeter film, video cassettes, and DVDs with downloadable video and audio products on their way.
A hundred years ago, we delivered our services in library buildings and in the community. Today, we deliver our services in library buildings, in the community and online. In the 1940s and ’50s, the St. Paul Public Library had two bookmobiles and more than 100 deposit collections in hospitals and work places. Today, we have one bookmobile, takeaway books in laundromats and food shelves, and classes in many languages in multiple community settings.
A hundred years ago, when job seekers couldn’t afford a newspaper subscription, they went to a library to look through the want ads. Today, if they cannot afford monthly Internet services, they go to the library to use a computer or to get help with résumé writing or their job search. Over the decades, most public libraries provided pay phones for public use; today, we offer copying, faxing and scanning. The touchstone service has been the support and guidance of skilled and caring staff.
Visits and circulation have ebbed and flowed throughout the decades. Library use is countercyclical, and many libraries saw spikes in the early years of the recent recession. But the mission of libraries as centers of community learning is enduring, and learning has never been more imperative.
Rather than technology or e-books, the biggest impact on public libraries is the change underway in how, why and when people learn. Libraries always have supported formal education and nonformal learning. Now the learning ecosystem is changing rapidly. The Internet makes available vast, high-quality and free learning resources for pursuing one’s own interests. Nonformal learning, always important, will be more prominent in the future.
As the Partnership for 21st Century Skills predicts, the education model is changing from institution-centered and degree-focused to self-directed and just-in-time skill-building. The MacArthur Foundation, calling for a “re-imagination of learning,” uses the term “connected learning” to describe education as “a responsibility of a distributed network of people and institutions,” including schools, colleges, universities, libraries and museums.
The job of public libraries, as ever, is to help people navigate the learning environment and curate their own learning. Public libraries continuously add access to emerging tools and help children, teens and adults acquire new skills. We help people connect — whether inside or outside the brick-and-mortar library — to commerce, government, learning and each other with new devices and technologies. We bring people together for engagement around books, culture, neighborhood and civic exchange because the juice of the library is in the verb and not the noun.
When we think about Andrew Carnegie and libraries, most of us think about his philanthropy in helping communities to build libraries. But I like to think of him at the start of his work life — as an immigrant teenager and factory worker — when he found everything he needed to get ahead in the world at a library.
Find the 21st-century version of young Andrew Carnegie at a public library near you.
Kit Hadley is director of the St. Paul Public Library.