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Can Libraries Survive in the Digital Age?

Public book repositories are becoming community anchors

Gone are the days when libraries were simply the keepers of information. No longer does one need to trek to their public library to find a piece of literature or a textbook for school.

Today, there’s Google Books and worlds of information and knowledge to be found through the haze of the Internet.

The explosion of information — and its easy access by millions of people — brings into question the library’s role in the digital age we inhabit. Students of all ages scroll their way through books and information on iPads, and even adults have fewer reasons to visit a library. The Kindle has made e-books accessible to even the least tech-savvy among us.

The American Library Association (ALA) has been candid about the evolution of libraries in today’s culture. In the 2015 State of America’s Libraries Report, they noted libraries are “no longer just places for books, libraries of all types are viewed as anchors, centers for academic life and research and cherished places.”

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Libraries have remained relevant by focusing on the learning needs of their communities, playing host to local events and promoting adult and childhood education through extracurricular activities.

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Naysayers have long claimed that the rise of the Internet would result in the death of literature and books as important cultural cornerstones for many youths. For a brief time, it seemed future generations might be left behind in the realm of literacy.

Then came the e-reader and the rise of self publishing. Today, there are more books available and more authors published than ever before. We may have witnessed the death of the bookstore (RIP Borders), but literature has adapted to the digital age without too many growing pains.

A recent study, however, found that the rise of digital publishing does not necessarily mean that physical books are dying a slow death. Nielsen BookScan found this year that sales of paperback books had seen a slight uptick, while digital books sales were down.

That libraries are adapting is part of this change. No one can predict how digital and physical content may evolve. Therefore, becoming “centers for academic life” and “anchors” for their communities is a strategic and appropriate shift. Bookstores may have failed because executives didn’t see the vision for stores beyond their role as product warehouses.

In contrast, libraries are increasing their value to the communities they serve by diversifying the portfolio of services they offer. What communities need are centers of activity and organized events that help promote the knowledge and literature that exists. Libraries are stepping up, and the outlook appears positive.

While certainly budgets will shift to help modernize and digitize libraries, it’s important to note the role that individuals now play in their public libraries.

With libraries slowly evolving into community centers that more aggressively promote learning, reading and academia, communities and individuals are discovering a need they didn’t know they had. The Internet may give us more access to information, but it doesn’t give us the motivation to learn, or the skills to navigate our way through the clutter to find what positively affects our minds.

Best-selling author James Patterson recently donated nearly $2 million to be used as grants to help various public libraries. This is a critical move, as public budgets, federal and otherwise, rightly begin to tighten their belts and cut fat.

The future of libraries may lie with individuals like Patterson and other benefactors who see the value in working to modernize libraries and expand their influence on the culture of local communities.

Libraries are finding creative ways to remain relevant in the context of our digital culture. That place may only be guaranteed, however, by the contributions of private individuals and communities willing to take the extra steps to cement it.

So when the last time you went to your local library?

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