A lot of powerful forces in society seem to think so.
In recent years, declines in the circulation of bound books in some parts of the country have led prominent critics to argue that libraries are no longer serving their historical function.
Eric Klinenberg (@Eric Klinenberg), a professor of sociology and the director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, is the author of the forthcoming book “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life,” from which this essay is adapted.
An earlier version of this essay included outdated information about a policy at the public libraries in San Jose, Calif.
Patrons are prohibited from borrowing books and using computers once their overdue fees surpass $20, not $10.
Ideas for and against libraries invest more in technology than books.For new parents, grandparents and caretakers who feel overwhelmed when watching an infant or a toddler by themselves, libraries are a godsend.In many neighborhoods, particularly those where young people aren’t hyper-scheduled in formal after-school programs, libraries are highly popular among adolescents and teenagers who want to spend time with other people their age.Again and again, I was reminded how essential libraries are, not only for a neighborhood’s vitality but also for helping to address all manner of personal problems.For older people, especially widows, widowers and those who live alone, libraries are places for culture and company, through book clubs, movie nights, sewing circles and classes in art, current events and computing.To appreciate why this matters, compare the social space of the library with the social space of commercial establishments like Starbucks or Mc Donald’s.These are valuable parts of the social infrastructure, but not everyone can afford to frequent them, and not all paying customers are welcome to stay for long.Older and poor people will often avoid Starbucks altogether, because the fare is too expensive and they feel that they don’t belong.The elderly library patrons I got to know in New York told me that they feel even less welcome in the trendy new coffee shops, bars and restaurants that are so common in the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods.The real problem that libraries face is that so many people are using them, and for such a wide variety of purposes, that library systems and their employees are overwhelmed.According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, about half of all Americans ages 16 and over used a public library in the past year, and two-thirds say that closing their local branch would have a “major impact on their community.”Libraries are being disparaged and neglected at precisely the moment when they are most valued and necessary. In part it’s because the founding principle of the public library — that all people deserve free, open access to our shared culture and heritage — is out of sync with the market logic that dominates our world.