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Think Libraries Don't Matter? Think Again

91 percent of Americans say libraries are important to their communities. Why?

There is a growing chorus of critics who argue that public libraries are no longer needed, and they are fueling efforts to cut public funding of libraries.

These detractors tend to fall into three camps.

First, there are those who believe books-as-physical-objects are quaint relics of the past. In this brave new 21st century, print media is getting replaced rapidly by digital media. But, according to the Wall Street Journal, the reality is that 90 percent of American public libraries have amassed e-book collections that can be read—for free--on an iPad or Kindle.

The second camp includes writers who believe that libraries cut into their personal profits precisely because people can go there to rent their books for free. In a particularly vitriolic rant to British newspaper The Guardian, bestselling children's author Terry Deary claimed that

...we've got this idea that we've got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers. This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that.

The third camp includes primarily affluent people who don't use libraries much and therefore argue that because they do not use something, it has no value for anyone.

This sound bite from TechCrunch blogger MG Siegler nicely expresses this belief:

It’s hard for me to even remember the last time I was in a library. I was definitely in one this past summer in Europe — on a historical tour. Before that, I think it was when I was in college. But even then, ten years ago, the internet was replacing the need to go to a library. And now, with e-books, I’m guessing the main reason to go to a library on a college campus is simply because it’s a quiet place to study.

Are these detractors right to argue that libraries are nothing more than antequated places to go to rob authors of their hard earned dollars? Well, not so much. You see, libraries are more than places to rent books for free. They are the hub—the lifeblood—of American communities.

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 91 percent of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities, and 76 percent say libraries are important to them and their families.

These free programs rely on volunteers and public funding. And the investment of time and money is well worth it. In his book, Give Us a Dollar and We'll Give You Back Four, Walt Crawford points out that for every dollar spent, public libraries give back an average of four dollars in services and materials to their communities.

Cuts in library staff and hours of operation are associated with declines in children's reading and scholastic achievement scores Over the last decade, attendance in New York City libraries' free programs jumped 88 percent to 2.5 million, yet funding cuts have necessitated cuts in staff and hours of operation.

Contrary to TechCrunch, libraries are not silent mausoleums inhabited only by wafting dust motes and wiry-haired librarians shushing the few patrons who bother to stop by. If you don't believe me or the numbers, take a look at this video recently released by The Atlantic magazine showing the vibrant activities and services provided by libraries—and note the long lines of people waiting for the doors to open. The video is only about 10 minutes long and well worth watching.

Copyright Dr. Denise Cummins August 19, 2014

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

More information about me can be found on my homepage.

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