3 Practical Reasons to Support Public Libraries

photo of Way Library, Perrysburg, OHLast year, my city had a library levy renewal on the ballot. I’m an active library patron, and to help raise support for the initiative, I wrote an article for the local paper (you can read “A Day in the Life of Way” at The Way Library’s website). The levy had great local support and passed.

But in the lead up to the election, I had conversations with people who felt that the library was not a top priority in an economic recession. (I understood the concern though I disagreed with the argument.) And some people felt that it isn’t their responsibility to fund books for other people’s kids (a claim that betrays an ignorance of both the nature of libraries and the profiles of library patrons).

Libraries public and private continue to fight for respect. Recently, British author Terry Deary said that libraries “are no longer relevant,” and that people should buy books instead of borrow them, since borrowing makes the authors and publishers less revenue (a fair point, and one that I feel as an author, though it results in a “let them eat cake” attitude toward those who can’t afford to buy many books). And last month, a widely-criticized CNBC report listed librarians as among the least stressful jobs (though the constant threat of your job being eliminated sure seems stressful to me).

In response to the continued discussion, last week Flavorwire collected quotes from 25 writers on why libraries are so important. These statements are eloquent and moving, personal reflections on the difference libraries have made in the lives of those writers.

But they’re also sermons addressed to the choir.

People whose trajectories have been altered by libraries are usually not, Terry Deary notwithstanding, the ones arguing for their demolition. We need more pragmatic arguments if we’re going to convince the non-readers and non-writers of the crucial role libraries still play in society.

So let me outline three practical reasons every citizen should support public libraries.

1. Libraries fight brain drain.

Many communities have suffered a phenomenon that’s been called “brain drain,” referring to high-achieving young people heading off to college and then never returning because they have better opportunities in the college towns and larger cities. This can have devastating effects both in the short term, with fewer educated people to run the local schools, businesses and governments, and in the long term, as families that otherwise would have been raised there end up calling somewhere else home.

Shrinking neighborhoods result in fewer jobs and other forms of economic development, making it less likely that residents will be able to afford higher education, creating a downward spiral.

But college isn’t the only way to become educated. Libraries stand in the gap, offering the opportunity for self-education to those who can’t afford college or have who made their commitment to the community a higher priority than seeking education elsewhere. Libraries offer access to not just their holdings, but also interlibrary loan, not to mention the resources of the internet. Librarians are trained to assist patrons with research methods, and many libraries offer classes in how to use a computer, how to access online journals, even how to interview for a job. And for those who can’t find it at home, libraries provide the quiet environment vital to successful study.

So communities that are fierce about supporting their libraries are combating brain drain and contributing to their long-term survival and growth.

2. Libraries are repositories of local history.

Survival is part of a community’s story, and the more a community knows about their own story, the more likely they are to work together to keep that community a great place to live and raise a new generation. The preservation of the past assists in the development of the future.

When granny dies and leaves boxes of black and white photographs of people you don’t recognize, what do you do? In my town, you take them to the library, where the local history librarian and his team of volunteers pore over them, identify the people and places pictured, and update their documentation.

Then they hold public exhibitions of historic photos, lead tours of historic places, and speak to schools and community groups about the important people and ideas that have carried your community to this point.

And participating in a story bigger than yourself enriches your community by inspiring innovation, collaboration and a desire to invest in those around you.

3. Libraries provide community services.

Yes, loaning out books—to patrons of all ages, not just kids—is a huge part of a library’s mission. But it’s just a part. Documenting local history is another part. But the services to the community go way beyond that, and they assist citizens at every socio-economic level.

For example, my local library trains seniors how to download books to their Kindles, offers tax filing clinics, and provides meeting space for substance abuse support groups, SAT prep classes, cultural heritage clubs, homeschool associations, CPR and babysitting classes, and more. It’s a hub of community vitality. The relatively small percentage of tax that homeowners like me pay has a huge ROI for our households individually as well as the community as a whole.

Libraries do all of this—plus you can take home as many books as you want and feed your mind.

How could you not support that?

  • Well said, Mindy. I worked at Way Public Library during my teen years and know first-hand the vital part it plays in forming and informing the community.

  • Andrew Whitis

    Excellent post! I especially like your first reason. Every library has a central mission to support life long learning. Framing this mission in the context of the brain drain may help people see this valuable service from a new perspective. 

  • dangermom

    Very nice.  Since I’m a librarian myself I am a bit biased, but IMO libraries are one of the most important government functions for a working democracy to maintain.  We need an informed populace, and the library is where everyone can go to learn, regardless of ability to pay for services.  That is so important! 

    I’d like to point out another practical reason to keep libraries open.  The library is where you can go to find out what your government is doing.  Public libraries keep records of what the local government is up to, and at any time you can go in and take a look at what’s going on.  Much of the material is not necessarily easy to find elsewhere–the city council probably puts its meeting agendas on its website (which you need Internet access to see), but where else are you going to easily find an 800-page analysis of local water issues?

  • Dangermom, excellent point–now we can call it 4 for Thursday! I completely agree that an “informed populace” is the key to a successful democracy.

    And an informed populace is one where a majority of citizens are committed to lifelong learning, like you said, Andrew. Learning takes many forms and is pursued unevenly, according to interest, background, etc., but without dedicated centers of literacy, learning slips down the priority list.

    Jeannine–I knew you’d appreciate the shout out to the Way. 🙂

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