The Relevance of Libraries

On April 10, 2015, KCUR’s “Up to Date” program interviewed Prof. John Palfrey about the future of libraries in the Digital Age, the day after he gave a talk on the subject at the Kansas City Public Library. During the interview, KCUR tweeted a question meant to provoke discussion about the future of libraries:

Prof. Palfrey offers an optimistic and robust vision for the future of libraries, but even he frames the discussion in a way that implicitly fuels the fire for those who question their relevance.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the data and I have to say—I can’t understand how the relevance of libraries has come into question in the first place. It bothers me that we’ve allowed this question to define the discussion about their future. I can’t think of any other public or civic institution or service that can boast the kind of numbers that libraries do. I tweet-stormed some of the most powerful:

These usage and approval numbers are about as unassailable as they can be. There really isn’t any legitimate question about the relevance of libraries in today’s society.

Do libraries need to adapt to changing circumstances and technologies? Absolutely. But historically, libraries have always done that so I’m not too worried about it.

But to suggest that libraries are substantially irrelevant in the Digital Age is flat-out incorrect. It doesn’t present an accurate picture of reality. The question itself is irrelevant—it’s a distraction from more meaningful and substantive discussions. To continue asking this question is neither meaningful nor helpful.

It’s the wrong question to move us into the future. Instead of asking if libraries are still relevant, we should ask:

  • Of all the essential and deeply relevant things we already do for our communities, how can we do them even better?
  • How can we best position ourselves to offer new essential and deeply relevant services as new needs arise?

Author’s Note: I responded to KCUR’s tweet and, well… I got a bit snarky:

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