Libraries Should Be About Books

It’s de rigueur nowadays for people to criticize libraries for being “too much about books.” The idea being that too many libraries are still stuck in the past, in outmoded service models, and failing to adapt to new technologies, trends, etc.

There is some truth in the criticism—although I also find that too many of these critics fail to be critical enough of new trends and tend too often to promote faddishness.

It makes me want to ask the obvious question:

What’s wrong with libraries being about books?

Books mean reading. Books are still the best, most valuable tool of a reading life. This makes books timelessly important—beyond fads, more enduring than ever-changing technology.

Books matter. Still and always. Because reading matters.

Some of what’s at work here is the fact that most of the critics who lambast libraries for being “too much about books” are individuals who work in academia. They don’t work directly with large public populations on a community level, and that affects their perspective on the role of reading in the local social fabric.

As a librarian who works in an urban public library, I can state without equivocation that fostering and supporting a lifelong love of reading is the single most valuable service we can offer our community.

Reading is the core skill that unlocks the world. It’s one of the most important and most beneficial activities in human society.

Reading is the foundation of educational and professional success, and it plays an essential role in personal health and satisfaction. Even a brief survey of the literature on the subject shows us this. For example:

Educational experts recognize that early literacy is the single most important factor in lifelong academic success. Economic and industry experts recognize that academic success is the single most important factor in lifelong professional success.

For people living in poverty, education is the best hope they have to improve their circumstances. And education depends on reading.

The economic health of a community depends on the overall professional success of the local population. Professional success depends on educational success and ongoing professional development. And that depends on reading.

The connection between reading and success in all aspects of life is so fundamental, the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, has made early literacy the core goal of his tenancy. Promoting adult literacy and fostering a community-wide culture of reading is central even to his long-term economic development plan. Reading is a powerful tool to promote social mobility and greater equality.

A 20-year research study led by Dr. Mariah Evans showed that the presence of books in a home is the strongest predictor of a child’s ultimate level of educational achievement:

In an op-ed piece, Frank Nero neatly summarizes the role of reading in children’s academic success and the importance of a literate workforce in the economy of an urban area:

Promoting a culture of reading is our most effective tool to engender cross-cultural awareness, to reduce social conflict, and to increase mutual understanding and respect.

Bryan Stevenson spoke powerfully about the importance of reading in his Carnegie Medal acceptance speech:

[R]eading is a pathway to survival and success. … [T]hat’s what’s powerful about books. That’s what great about the library. Getting people closer to worlds and situations that they can’t otherwise know and understand. I think there’s real power in that. And that’s what books can do.

The health and well-being, the prosperity and security of a community depends on its reading habits.

Reading matters. Sharing our stories matters. These things are irreducibly important. Which makes books indispensable.

So, I ask again—What’s wrong with libraries being about books?


Caveats:

  1. Books ≠ print. Books can come in print, digital, audio—multiple formats. To foster a vibrant culture of reading, libraries should promote books in all available formats to the best of our ability. Also—magazines, journals, comics, graphic novels, etc.
  2. Promoting reading is the most important service a public library can provide its community. But that doesn’t mean it should be the only thing we do. Libraries can offer a range of services and still promote reading. Libraries can do and be more than one thing.
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