The levy for the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County passed this week. Although, generally speaking, I take this as good news, I do have ambivalent feelings about the future of public libraries.
My professional career began over 30 years ago as the Town Librarian in Gorham, Maine, a sweet little bedroom community outside Portland.
I broke new ground in my two years there, by being the first librarian hired from outside the town of Gorham (Mainers have such a phobia about those from "away"!), and by overseeing, along with the Board, the remodeling of the basement into a new children’s room (an even bigger deal!).
I wanted to be a librarian since I was in junior high. It’s in my gut. But, boy, have I seen a lot of changes, both in the profession, and in American society’s view of the role of libraries, especially public ones. By and large, I think libraries and librarians have done a remarkable job of embracing new technologies, but, at the same time, I wonder about the future role of the public library as a repository of knowledge and as a sanctuary for readers.
My current moonlighting job in a retail bookstore has reinforced many of my suspicions. I see parents and students rushing in to buy the next required book, usually at the last minute. I see men and women settling in with a stack of books and magazines, sometimes for a whole morning or afternoon. I even accept returns on books within days of purchase from customers who boldly admit that they’ve read them and so are done with them. And, if we don’t have something a customer wants, I am frequently tempted to suggest they try the library (it beats sending them to our competitor, right?).
So my thoughts are these. Are bookstores now supplanting libraries in the minds of parents, children, old folks, young people, men and women, as the first place they think of when they want/need something to read or a place to read? Will the public library remain only as an archive of knowledge, and a community center for the immobile inner city poor?
I am glad the library levy passed, because, through a reciprocal regional agreement, I have full borrowing privileges at the branch near my Warren County home, and I frequently go to the downtown Main Library on my lunch hour. But, if it had failed, I cannot help but wonder if the Library would see that the writing is on the wall.