Friday, August 1, 2008

The Evolving Public Library

In a previous post, “Borrowed Time?,” I commented on some of the continuities and discontinuities that have characterized the development of American public libraries. A project I am working on has caused me to think more about how public libraries have and have not changed over time.

Most of us have a relatively fixed image of what a public library is. Often this is an imprint from our childhood, or from a time when a great need was met (or perhaps not). That image can inform our perceptions of what a public library has been, is, and should be. But we need more than a single, fixed image to understand an institution that is both historic and dynamic.

My earliest impressions of a public library could have been my last. The public library to which I was exposed as a child was dreadful: the facility was an uninspiring brick box (this was in the 1970s), the collection was old and weak, and the librarian I remember best spent much of her time fiddling with a film projector so that a small group of children could watch some forgettable film.

But later in life, after hiding out in academic libraries for some time, I began to use and value greatly the public libraries that I found in the various cities I lived in and visited. My use of public libraries is varied: I might explore books or periodicals; check out a new novel or DVD; get some books, videos, audio recordings, or video games for my children; ask for some kind of help; use some of the library’s unique resources for research (every library I have ever visited has unique resources); meet others or attend a community event; or just use the wireless network when I need an alternative place to get some work done. The bleak images from my childhood have been augmented by a range of metaphors that now inform my understanding of what a public library is—I view it as a museum, a school, a workplace, a community center, and even a mall.

In the beginning, American public libraries were predominately linked with print culture—i.e., they collected and facilitated access to printed books and periodicals. This began to change in the mid 20th century, when many public libraries began building collections of new communication media such as records and films. While many observers may consider the recent changes in public libraries to be revolutionary, what has happened over the last ten years is better described as evolutionary: public libraries are continuing to adapt to their environments.

The risk is over-adaptation. Imagine if, in the 1950s, libraries had spent more money on vinyl records than on books; or if, in the 1970s, libraries had focused too much on providing access to 16mm films.

For a recent article on this topic, see: “Libraries Adapted to Digital Age”: