We ask libraries to do much more than collect books; we should give them the resources to do it

Libraries have been central to civilized societies for thousands of years as repositories of knowledge, as forums for public discussion and debate, and as community gathering places. Today the library is adapting to unprecedented advances in information technology as computers and other digital devices rapidly replace shelves of bound books. Through it all, libraries have had to constantly reinvent themselves to keep up with the times and their role as vital conduits for the ties that bind us in community and common purpose.

That’s why we were heartened by a report that the Pratt Library will make social workers available at four of its neighborhood branches. The social workers, recruited from the ranks of graduate students at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, will offer counseling and other assistance to patrons who require help navigating the city and state agencies responsible for providing needed social services. Library officials said they brought in the students because so many of their patrons were coming in with the kind of questions only trained social workers could answer. We hope the effort will spread to more branches and to libraries in the suburbs, too.

Like teachers, librarians today find themselves obliged to to fill a variety of roles that have little to do with the skills in which they were trained. They’ve become by default some of society’s first responders to the massive social problems that afflict distressed communities in Baltimore and elsewhere. As The Sun’s Andrea K. McDaniels noted last week, the Pratt’s social worker program exemplifies how libraries have evolved into more than just places to check out books. For many residents they are an indispensable font of information and support that enables them to meet life’s everyday challenges.

The Pratt already offers a variety of programs that stretch the traditional definition of what libraries do, and with the addition of the social workers the library hopes to further strengthen the safety net of services it offers. Librarians may have a reputation as strict and stern shushers, but in reality they tend to be curious, outgoing people who have dedicated themselves to spreading a love of knowledge and learning to their communities. It’s not a stretch for them to see their mandates broadly and to seek to help those who come through their doors however they can.

The challenge facing the Pratt and libraries across the country is to reimagine their role as vital links in the social fabric of the communities to which they belong without diminishing their ability to play their historic role as repositories of our collective memory and culture. Library officials are well aware they can’t be everything to everyone, nor can they solve all the problems their visitors confront. The fact that libraries now find themselves as de facto social services offices does not mean that the need for their primary mission of disseminating information to the widest possible audience is in any way diminished. The age of Google and smartphones may seem to put all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, but the reality is that we still need trained professionals to curate all that information, contextualize it and point us toward new sources an algorithm might miss. There is a serendipity in browsing the stacks of a library that the Internet has yet to replicate.

Local government officials would be wise to support efforts to broaden the services offered in libraries; they are, after all, community anchors spread throughout the city and counties. We should meet residents needs where they are. But we can’t allow that evolution of our library branches to diminish the funds available for buying new books, computer terminals and other materials. All the libraries’ other activities — from social work to legal services to administration of Naloxone — are good and useful, but the only way they can be sustained is if the community makes a greater commitment to fund library operations commensurate with the myriad tasks we expect them to perform.

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