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The public library was never just about books

On July 21, Forbes published a piece by economist Panos Mourdoukoutas arguing that Amazon stores should replace public libraries. The backlash was rapid and unforgiving; library-lovers from around the world responded with angry tweets, and Forbes removed the piece two days later. Yet the article highlights a concerning fact: Too many Americans misunderstand the role of the public library.

The library is not a warehouse of books like Amazon, a tech developer like Apple or a cafe like Starbucks. It is a public institution of learning predicated on the principle that all Americans should be able to access information, education and culture free of cost. In practice, the unique mission of the public library leads to a distinct set of services, ranging from book-lending to computer- and English- language classes. The growing diversity of library activities is not a means of compensating for the rise of the Internet or a decline in the number of library users. Libraries have been re-inventing their programs for over a century in an effort to advance the same old mission: information for all.

It’s true that some people can gain the educational and cultural resources they seek at for-profit venues. However, as library advocates point out, the quality and diversity of library events and educational resources are rarely surpassed. Licensed librarians are available to curate books and online resources around any question a patron might ask. There are story-time events, job assistance resources for homeless individuals and citizenship classes for recent immigrants.

But to compare the library to a bookstore or cafe is to miss the point. The existence of for-profit alternatives to some library services does not undermine the need for libraries, just like the existence of private attorneys does not diminish the importance of our public defenders.

For over a century, American libraries have mastered the craft of ensuring that every person has access to the highest quality services in a free and open manner. Today, nearly every library provides free computer access and runs digital literacy classes. These services are not meant to compensate for waning interest in books or to compete with Amazon. Rather, public libraries provide free training and technology because the Internet is a tool to access information even though that tool is distributed unequally in the U.S., where only 65 percent of American have broadband access at home, including 57 and 47 percent of blacks and Latinos respectively. A report by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation notes that in 2013 an estimated 74,000 households in Baltimore had no Internet at all.

This summer, my organization, Libraries Without Borders, is working with the Providence Community Library in Rhode Island to bring legal information, wi-fi access, and library resources into flea markets, laundromats and housing developments. We know that too many families want to meet with a lawyer, study for their GED, or learn English but don’t know where to begin. Some lack the time to pursue these interests while others are simply unaware of existing services. The library is the first step to achieving these goals, but library services extend far beyond a building or the books inside it.

These outreach activities are emblematic of the decades of mission-driven work by public libraries across the United States. There are few systems as representative of this fact as the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. In 1886, Enoch Pratt was opened with the intent to provide information to all regardless of race; in October of that year, Harry S. Cummings was the first African American to get a Pratt library card. In 1943, the library sponsored a horse-drawn bookmobile designed to travel throughout the city. During World War II, the Brooklyn Branch of Enoch Pratt served as an information bureau for Civil Defense, while operating a day-care center for working mothers and hosting Red Cross meetings. And all these initiatives? Done before the advent of the Internet.

The value of a library is defined by its steadfast commitment to making information free and open to all. In that respect, there is no company or public institution that could ever replace the library.

Adam Echelman is the director of programs for Libraries Without Borders. His email is adam.echelman@librarieswithoutborders.org.

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