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Bound To Happen: The Changing Role of America’s Public Libraries

Do kids even go to the library anymore? It’s easy to assume that the relevancy of public libraries in America would diminish in the age of memes, Fortnite and information whenever and however you want it. However, that is not the case at all. Libraries are rapidly changing from stuffy, quiet rooms run by strict librarians to unique, high-tech and efficient centers for community and resources.

The archetype of a library is a one-story building with just a few rooms, maybe near a school or a fire department, filled to the point of bursting with books. In many areas, this remains the simple reality, and it serves its purpose. In other cities, though, a new trend is beginning. Libraries are no longer simple institutions of reading, but grand and sprawling monuments to the pursuit of knowledge through any medium. Whether you’re looking for microfiche or Microsoft, chances are you’ll find it at a library near you.

A bulletin board celebrates important women in the Teen Center at Seattle Public Library (Image Credit: Ezra Levinson)

At the central branch of Seattle’s library, an eclectic mix of people can be seen. Young couples can be seen walking quietly through the teen area, not focused on the books at all. In the nonfiction stacks, law students page through books thicker than a dictionary and elderly people assemble their family trees with the help of patient staff members. Areas with computers are the most diverse, with some parts smelling distinctly of marijuana (legal in Washington, but definitely not inside the library). Throughout any area, though, one thing is consistent: all the guests have a distinct sense of respect for the library and the community it houses. Even those who simply come in during the day because they have nowhere else to go are awestruck by the knowledge around them.

It’s far too easy to discount the idea of libraries as part of a modern community. Maybe tax dollars could be better spent on parks, or roads, or feeding the hungry. Look deeper, though. According to a report by the American Library Association, more than half of voters think public libraries are essential. Nearly half think the library offers a hub for community that can’t be found anywhere else. While Seattle’s main branch may be an extreme example of the library as a community center, it is just one of many. The library today is not just for research, or children’s books, or stuffy old academics. It’s for all those people and everyone else, whether you drove from your comfortable house or walked in off the street. Even if your library isn’t as striking as Seattle’s or as majestic as New York’s, as beautiful as Los Angeles’s or as modern as Jackson Hole’s, it is still a place where everyone is welcome and everyone is appreciated. Today’s librarians are just as happy to help you code your first website as they are to help you find a book.

Our friendly neighborhood public libraries aren’t going anywhere anytime soon – there are more libraries than McDonald’s franchises in the United States. Even so, though, maybe it’s time we stopped taking them for granted. If you live near a library, maybe try it instead of Google for your next research project. You’ll be supporting one of the oldest forms of community center – and you might just be pleasantly surprised.

Photo: The Seattle Public Library

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