I love to read. I have fond memories of reading in the backseat on my family’s weekly drive to the Ashburn Public Library as a child, my nose stuck in a book sometimes larger than my face.
With a librarian for a mom, reading has always been a part of my identity ― classics like the The Tale of Despereaux and Harold and the Purple Crayon shaped six year old me into who I am today ― so when I read an article about libraries dying a few years back, I assumed it was sensationalist. How could a societal staple dating back thousands of years become obsolete?
Nowadays, the hype behind the supposed end of the age of libraries has grown to a dramatic level. Newspaper giants roll out stories about how the demand for libraries has decreased and how funds should be shifted to more pressing issues. But are libraries really dying?
The answer is a definitive no. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of library outlets (libraries plus branches and bookmobiles), their average square footage, and other key metrics increased consistently in the past four years, with the exception of their number of print materials. So if libraries aren’t dying, why do people think they are?
Interestingly enough, I found a blip in the demand for print materials and a surge in the demand for ebooks in 2020 that NPR attributes to the COVID pandemic. I found it interesting, and it’s definitely worth a read.
I found the answer in the heart of midtown Atlanta, at the Price Gilbert Memorial Library. Price Gilbert (which is part of the Georgia Tech campus) provides a clear example of the trend sweeping the nation ― libraries are going bookless. Not bookless in the sense that the library has no materials to read, but in the sense that, in some spaces, it’s difficult to find a book.
As the internet extends its tendrils into our lives, ripping out “old school” staples for cutting-edge technology, libraries have kept pace. Libraries realize that searching through endless rows of encyclopedias is inconvenient and that the demand for collaborative spaces is growing, so librarians are opting to either digitalize or archive some of their print materials and replace their shelves with community space. Built-in coffeeshops, makerspaces, book nooks, and study areas aren’t killing libraries ― they’re fueling the library renaissance.
Libraries have always been public spaces, but many view them solely as book warehouses. When shelves are empty, some library users assume the library is reducing its stock and is in decline, perpetuating the myth. So the next time you see a Starbucks next to the science fiction section, don’t disapprove ― it’s just sweetening the deal for libraries and their users.