“Who needs public libraries? You can get most of that information online.”
I used to think that. It’s really easy to get into that line of thinking. The Internet has helped lead the way in the “democratization of knowledge”. You can find a lot of stuff online from scholarly articles that describe new scientific breakthroughs to not-so-scholarly articles that describe things that make some invest heavily in rolls of aluminum foil. To help bounce the mind-control rays. Or something. You can download tons of free ebooks through Project Gutenberg, free (as in speech and as in beer [sometimes]) open source software from places like GitHub, and learn new skills and hobbies by just picking the collective brains of people all over the world. With most people easily accessing this type of knowledge from their mobile device or laptops, do we really need public libraries?
In spite the low-to-no cost of accessing vast amounts of information online, sometimes you need a book. A real, physical collection of pages from dead trees. Sometimes that need comes in the form of the latest fiction novel or maybe even a somewhat obscure book to learn about a subject that interests you. Physical books are still expensive. Sometimes you might be able to shell out a few bucks for a book to add to your own personal library, but a lot of times you can easily spend $20 or more. Why spend big bucks on books when you can place a reserve hold on a book you’re wanting to read through your public library? Even if your branch doesn’t have a local copy, you can usually borrow it from another system inside Georgia and have it delivered to your branch. At no charge to you.
Public libraries offer resources beyond the physical page: Internet access (we still forget that not everyone has access), social clubs, makerspaces (including things like 3D printers and other equipment), and even offering online access to ebooks, audiobooks, and TV shows and movies through mobile apps. Our public libraries are offering our society more than just easy access to books: it’s a physical place where members of the community can come and exchange ideas and information. I’ve learned quite a bit from the public library from the Bell Telephone System to the beginnings of companies, organizations, and people who laid the foundations of our current information age to learning about the cosmos. I may be a college graduate, but my education continues. Georgia’s public libraries have played a substantial part in my continuing education.
There may be continuing questions surrounding the usefulness of public libraries or op-eds, like one from Forbes that has been subsequently deleted, that recommends private companies taking over our public libraries. While this may have the intention of reducing the expense on the taxpayer, what would the cost be to our society if Amazon, let’s say, were to manage the public library system. Would Amazon Prime members get first shot at new, popular books? Would libraries have access to audiobooks on Audible or the vast number of ebooks on Amazon, or would it become a walled garden where users are limited to certain parts of the Amazon catalog?
Do I believe that there could be improvements? Sure. First off, the PINES website could use some sprucing up along with its search and recommendation engine. Perhaps Georgia’s public libraries could also have some (limited) access to the catalogs at our public colleges and universities from which users could borrow. Even though there are some areas for improvement, Georgians have a rich resource through their community library. If you haven’t been in a while, I’d highly encourage you to check it out.
I’ll continue to be a happy patron of my local library, and I hope that you will too.