When’s the last time you went to the library, and what did you go for?
If you’re like most Americans, you’ve used your local library’s services at least once over the past 12 months to borrow books or other media, do research, use the computers or access the Internet. That’s according to a nationwide survey conducted last December by the Pew Research Center.
You’d think in the digital age that library use would have dwindled. After all, most of the research I did as a college student can now be done on a tablet while sipping coffee at Starbucks. And books? Who needs them when you have a Kindle?
But libraries are alive and well. In fact, U.S. libraries circulate something like 2.5 billion books and other materials each year. Getting a library card is still a rite of passage for a young person or immigrant.
“Despite the Internet, it seems, libraries persist—even thrive,” the Carnegie Reporter tells us. The Reporter notes that visits per capita and circulation have gone up even as the Internet has reached into every area of American life.
It was Andrew Carnegie who almost single-handedly created America’s public library system, donating the funds to build 1,689 libraries in the U.S. starting in 1889. The hallmarks of a Carnegie Library were public support for its construction and operation, free service for all, and an open-stacks or self-service policy.
Over a hundred years later, more than half of the original Carnegie Libraries are still in use. In New York City, 31 of the original 39 libraries remain the nucleus of the New York Public Library system.
It’s amazing to me how libraries have remained vital amid change and upheaval. With the exception of schools and universities, what other institution can claim such a lasting and profound legacy as the public library system?
In the Pew survey, 91 percent of Americans aged 16 and older said public libraries are important to their communities; and 76 percent said libraries are important to them and their families.
Libraries have survived and thrived over the years by understanding their mission and putting the needs of their customers first. But it wasn’t always that way. At one time, libraries acted as reliquaries, veritable temples to learning. Librarians were the keepers of rare books and manuscripts, the guardians of knowledge. Libraries were for the privileged few, the learned, the educated, the literati—heavens, not the great, unwashed masses.
The Carnegie Libraries changed that. To have open stacks where everyone could help themselves to books, oh my gosh, what a welcome change!
Whenever I’m at a library, I love spending time in the shelves, exploring or chasing down books I’ve looked up in the catalog.
When I was an undergraduate at U.Va., one of my favorite haunts was Alderman Library, whose open stacks occupied a series of half-floors, accessible by narrow, metal staircases. Each time I ventured into the recesses of the stacks, it was an adventure. There was no telling what I would find. As a graduate student at George Mason, I also spent many an hour in the stacks at Fenwick Library, always finding something that I didn’t know was there.
Okay, that’s me waxing nostalgic. But what makes libraries hip today?
Here are three things they continue to do right that you might want to pay attention to in your own organization:
- A place to go to. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote about our need for a “third place” between home and work where people can gather, connect and enrich themselves and society. It could be a cafe, a hair salon, a pub…or a library. As it turns out, we don’t always like to read or study alone. Libraries are inviting spaces where people can spend time lost in a book, engage with others or attend a class or lecture. It’s safe, it’s free, you don’t have to buy anything and you can stay as long as you want. What about your business, how inviting is it to customers?
- Improvement. Libraries are integral to our concept of self-improvement, the idea that through education and individual initiative we can have a better life or career. As the Carnegie Reporter notes, “if you think self-improvement is dead, or is only the kind of thing people do at the gym nowadays, you need to visit a public library or two—particularly in a neighborhood full of new Americans. They need a place to go where they can pursue the mission of improvement, which after all is what made them come to this country to begin with.” Does your organization have a culture of improvement?
- Adaptation. If you haven’t set foot in a library since childhood, you might be surprised by what you find. Yes, there are still a lot of books. But there are rows of computers, too. And you’ll likely find CDs, DVDs and books on tape. At tax time, you’ll see volunteers helping people prepare their returns. You’ll see kids programs, job fairs, speakers, tutors, translators and teachers. There’s free Wi-Fi, and the library’s website is rich with content and free access to specialty publications and subscription-only periodicals. How much has your business changed in the last decade?
I’m excited about the new technology ideas that Pew Research asked Americans about in its study. Apparently some libraries are already exploring these. See what you think:
- Online research services allowing patrons to pose questions and get answers from librarians: 37% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use an “ask a librarian” type of service, and another 36% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
- Apps-based access to library materials and programs: 35% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use that service and another 28% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
- Access to technology “petting zoos” to try out new devices: 35% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use that service and another 34% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
- GPS-navigation apps to help patrons locate material inside library buildings: 34% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use that service and another 28% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
- “Redbox”-style lending machines or kiosks located throughout the community where people can check out books, movies or music without having to go to the library itself: 33% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use that service and another 30% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.
- “Amazon”-style customized book/audio/video recommendation schemes that are based on patrons’ prior library behavior: 29% of Americans ages 16 and older would “very likely” use that service and another 35% say they would be “somewhat likely” to do so.