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In Praise of Public Libraries

A new Golden Age and not just on paper

In January, the Washington Post carried an editorial lauding “A New Golden Age of Public Libraries.”

“As the world enters 2022, public libraries are emerging as one of the bright spots — literally,” the Post’s editorial board swooned. “An abundance of new and newly renovated libraries have opened their doors in the past two years. In addition to being breathtakingly beautiful, many are exemplars of what great community spaces can and should be.”

An external shot of the Wormhole Library. Green grass and a long concrete path in the foreground lead up to the library itself, with curved white and glass walls.
Overlooking the China South Sea, the Wormhole Library designed by Beijing-based MAD architecture studio is situated within the Century Park along the Haikou Bay coastline. Completed in 2021, the library serves as a multi-functional building, accommodating spaces for reading and a public rest area for visitors. Courtesy MAD architecture studio

The piece highlighted several overseas libraries, such as the Wormhole Library in Haikou, China; the Stanley A. Milner Library in Edmonton, Alberta; and the award-winning Deichman Bjørvika library in Oslo, Norway. In addition to breathtaking architecture, these venues offer their patrons not only books, CDs, and other physical and digital media but also computer labs, recording studios, 3D printers, vinyl and laser cutters, teaching kitchens, and much more. The editorial also highlighted several libraries within the U.S., such as the Fayetteville Public Library in Arkansas, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library in Manhattan, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., with equally wonderful buildings, facilities, and resources on par with their counterparts abroad.

My wife and I are big users of public libraries and have sometimes visited the local libraries of our travel destinations, domestic and international.

We are fortunate to be living in Loudoun County, Va., which offers residents numerous facilities and resources through its public library system. Some branch libraries have makerspaces (collaborative work spaces) with all kinds of equipment, such as 3D printers, sewing machines, a heat press, AV digital conversion equipment, and much more. Loudoun County public libraries continued to offer services to residents even while closed during the height of Covid-19 through online lending and outreach services. As Julius C. Jefferson Jr., former president of the American Library Association, was quoted in the Post editorial: “Buildings may not have been open, but libraries were never closed.”

Completed in December 2018, the Helsinki Central Library Oodi was designed by Helsinki-based architecture firm ALA Architects.

One of the most memorable libraries we visited was the Helsinki Central Library Oodi in Helsinki, Finland, three years ago. Oodi won the prestigious Public Library of the Year award for 2019 from the International Federation of Library Associations. The library has a considerable set of facilities and resources with ultra-modern architecture inside and out. Within its 185,675 square feet, the library has only about 100,000 books, with most space reserved for public amenities, including open-plan reading rooms, a cinema, recording studios, a makerspace, cafes, gaming rooms, meeting and conference rooms, and areas for hosting exhibitions and events. The library also offers its patrons access to some 3.4 million books through interlibrary loans that can be picked up from the building.

The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., is another valuable resource for people living in the area and a worthy pilgrimage destination for book lovers. It’s the world’s largest library with 164 million items and more than 800 miles of bookshelves. Thousands of works are added to its collections each working day, received through exchanges with libraries in the U.S. and abroad; gifts; materials received from local, state, and federal agencies; foreign governments; purchases; and copyright deposits, which are the library’s core collection. Though not a public library — it’s technically a research library for Congress — anyone 16 and older can use it without charge or special permission but can interact with the materials only on-premises.

An interior shot of the Library of Congress, offering views of entrance and grand rotunda.
The oldest federal cultural institution in the country, the Library of Congress officially serves as a research library for Congress and is the de facto national library of the United States. Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería

I visited the Library of Congress a couple of times in the early 1990s when I was doing doctoral research and since then many times — sometimes just to admire the architecture and breathtaking interiors, to see the public works of arts, or simply to read the quotations and inscriptions on the walls and ceilings. A large photograph of the Library of Congress reading room has pride of place in our living room.

Even before my wife and I moved to the U.S. in 1970 for graduate studies at UCLA, I used to visit what was then known as the United States Information Service library present in many major cities in India. In addition to lending books and vinyl records, these libraries were a great resource for learning about America, its universities, and its culture.

In fact, in the summer of 1970, before we came to the U.S., the USIS in New Delhi organized a three-day orientation seminar at the imposing Vigyan Bhavan government building for prospective students like us to learn more about life, studies, and other aspects of America. I still recall something the USIS librarian told us during his talk: When you are in the U.S., you will notice many things: Everyone in America works; someone who doesn’t work is a bum; and there’s a good deal of fellowship in America. When driving to a new city, you will notice several signboards at the city entrance with information about days and times when different clubs meet (e.g., the Rotary Club), so you can go to the club of which you are a member and be among people with whom you can easily relate.

Despite such extraordinary resources at public libraries, sadly, public library usage has continued to decline over the years. Tim Coates, a London bookseller, library advocate, and former managing director of British book retailer Waterstones, reported last year that U.S. public library building usage has been down 31 percent over the past eight years. Australia has seen a 22 percent drop over 10 years. And since 2000, the U.K. has seen a stunning 70 percent decrease.

Screenshot from the 2020 Public Library Technology Survey with topline findings, including: Almost one-third (32.6%) of public libraries offer internet hotspots for check out. Less than half of public libraries (43.7%) increased their bandwidth in the last two years, and more than one-third (34.6%) are unable to improve bandwidth because faster speeds are not available. More than one-third (36.7%) of public libraries have dedicated staff for digital literacy and technology programs and training. More than 88% of all public libraries offer some kind of formal or informal digital literacy programming. Nearly half of public libraries (48.7%) provided streaming public programs (e.g., with remote speakers) in the previous 12 months. One in five public libraries (20%) provide access to 3D printers.
Summary findings from the 2020 Public Library Technology Survey Summary Report.

The decline in public library building usage is more than made up by access to digital resources at libraries. Digitization of reading materials has had an enormous impact on libraries and reading materials. The digital revolution continues to produce newer and faster means of communication such as ebooks, public access computers with public internet, public computerized dictionaries and thesauri, and much else.

The 2020 Public Library Technology Survey by the American Library Association documented how public libraries are adapting to changing needs and using emerging technologies to serve diverse communities. The survey found that more than 90 percent of U.S. public libraries offer ebooks and audiobooks to their members. More than 63 percent of all libraries offer online job and employment resources, 61 percent offer online health resources, and 49 percent offer streaming and other downloadable resources (video, music, and magazines).

During Covid-19, when library buildings were closed, many libraries boosted their Wi-Fi signals so members could access library resources from the immediate vicinity of the library buildings if they did not have internet access at home.

A new golden age of public libraries, indeed!

Vinod Jain headshot
Vinod K. Jain
Metropolitan Washington Mensa | Joined 1990

Vinod is an expert in global and digital strategy, an award-winning professor, a Fulbright Scholar, and author of an MBA textbook, Global Strategy (Routledge, 2016). His next strategy book, Global Meets Digital: Global Strategy for Digital Businesses; Digital Strategy for Global Businesses, will be published by Taylor & Francis later this year. He taught at the Rutgers Business School, Newark and New Brunswick, and the University of Maryland, College Park. In the past, he worked as a middle- and senior-level executive with American and British multinationals.