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What's the relevance of your public library in a digital world?

20130217-131944.jpgRunning by our Island’s library yesterday I was struck by the ‘OPEN’ sign all lit up in one of the windows. ‘Open’ to me was a shout out, “We’re still here, we’re still relevant.”

When I passed the library on the way home I saw women who worked there leaving for the day. It must be amazing to them how the role of their community library has changed in the last 10 years.

Our first summer on the Island my wife was worried our oldest daughter was reading too much and not getting out. She was walking the few blocks to our library and picking up 5 or 6 books and reading them in a week. I thought it was great.

I wonder today if she’d be holed up with a lap top or reading books online. What’s the the role of our community library today?

James Bridle (@jamesbridle) has a great read in the Guardian this morning, ‘It’s not what a library stocks, it’s what it shares,’ about our country’s first fully digital public library in San Antonio. A library that will contain not one book.

The facility, part of a planned state-wide bookless system called BiblioTech, is modelled on an Apple store rather than a traditional library, but it will retain all the important features: more than 100 e-readers available to borrow, with more than 10,000 ebooks – and visitors can bring their own devices, too.

Though there are problems with the traditional checkout model and e-books, Bridle reminds us of the importance of libraries.

They are not just places to read books, they are public spaces providing a range of services. These are essential to people on lower incomes, beneficial to all, and they are adjusting to different roles. Amsterdam’s Central Library, a magnificent building, the largest of its kind in Europe, opened in 2007, and emphasises the library as a space to work, think and connect. Books, while plentiful, could be secondary here: as much work is done by visitors online – spread across floor after floor of well-lit and well-connected desks and comfortable chairs – as with the collection.

And he’s spot on about the value of a non-commercial zone, something we have increasingly less of online.

But there is no equivalent of public space online, which is too susceptible to corporate and technocratic control, and so the physical institution remains essential. The bookless library is not a contradiction in terms, but a continuation of the library’s core purpose, providing access to knowledge and information, and a public statement of the value of that access.

Maybe I’m nuts, and my grades didn’t show it, but I love libraries. I remember as a kid going up the spiral staircase in the turret to the third floor of our local library in La Crosse. My best recall is when you reached the top in this turn of the century red brick building was stacks of books for kids.

Later on, I remember ‘Ralph,’ one of the two bartenders at our local, ‘John’s Bar,’ hanging out by the fireplace on the first floor of the library reading spindle-bound newspapers from around the country (I liked to do the same). Ralph didn’t make much money, but he was sharp as a tack.

In my travels I seek out libraries to see the buildings and how the community interacts with their library. No question you find libraries play a key role in the lives of lower income Americans.

I like the Apple store analogy. I’d love to read, blog, and connect via social media in such an environment. I’d also be happy to support, beyond property taxes, such a library financially.

Do you still use your public library? How about you guys with younger kids – are they using the library? Do you still see the relevance of your community’s library?

Image courtesy of Flickr by Chip Griffin.