Younger Americans can hardly imagine a time when you had to visit a library to research the population of Phoenix in 1980. Google now does that in seconds.
Entire books are downloaded to tablets in minutes. Classics from “Moby-Dick” to Shakespeare’s tragedies come virtually free. A project called the Digital Public Library of America now seeks to digitalize the entire Library of Congress and university collections.
And less of what we consider information comes in word form. Videos now explain everything from bicycle repair to how the Federal Reserve works.
So let’s ask: Do we still need public libraries, with their miles of dusty bookshelves, decimated reference departments and rules of decorum? Yes.
We still want to read, study and communicate in a non-distracting environment. And we still need what urbanologists call “third places” – that is, public spaces other than work and home. Public libraries are third places, along with cafes and old-fashioned bookstores.
It was predicted that the move to online communication would enable us to make a living on an isolated farm or private mountaintop. Many can, but the human need to mix with others of the species remains strong.
Herein lies the paradox: The more we can work at home, the more we need third places for getting out in the world. That’s why many of the most digitally connected Americans are moving into downtowns.
That’s why Starbucks is so crowded, even in the suburbs. And that’s why public libraries are taking on a new importance in economic development. Older public libraries in sad urban cores are seeing tables once dominated by those with no other place to go being occupied by 20- and 30-year-olds who’ve just moved downtown.
Gloversville, New York, has suffered hard times since the glove business collapsed in the 1950s. But it still has a glorious Beaux Arts library, built in 1904 with Andrew Carnegie’s money.
The town is now renovating this grand building as a magnet for downtown revival. One thing that made public libraries of yore less-than-ideal third places was they discouraged lively conversation. Today’s libraries have loosened up on that considerably.
“When my kids were little, I would not have even thought to bring them to the library,” one librarian told me.
Now there are cellphones going off and children running around. Does anything go these days?
“Yes and no,” she responded. “We don’t want to stifle people too much when they’re talking and communicating, but there have been times when I’ve had to stop someone using bad language close to the youth department.”
Libraries have expanded their offerings well beyond the printed word. Many offer computer and literacy training, meeting rooms and more. The spectacular Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library in Kansas features an art gallery, cafe and “booktique” selling used books, jewelry and various gift items. I could have spent a week there.
Many older Americans miss the starchy grandeur of the old library experience – the venerable wood tables, mosaic floors and hushed stacks. Should they just get over it?
John Palfrey, a founder of the Digital Public Library of America, warns against nostalgia for the public libraries of yesteryear. “Libraries must create a new nostalgia,” he wrote.
I don’t know. What’s wrong with nostalgia the way it used to be? The library’s retro feel fits right in with the downtown vibe. In any case, libraries can offer both old-fashioned reading rooms for traditionalists and (enclosed) rooms for video gamesters.
Public libraries are evolving with the times. One hopes that they will keep what’s nice while searching for the new.
• Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at email@example.com.