The new library director in Evanston, Illinois suggests that public libraries “should be the third most important places in people’s lives”:
Evanston’s new public library director says that the city’s library should be the third most important place for citizens, after work and home, or school and home.
“The public library should be the third most important place for engagement and public discourse, for people to research topics of interest,” said Karen Danczak Lyons, who was appointed as next director of the library during a recent library board meeting…
Like most government entities, the library is faced with budget challenges as it looks to balance the need for revenue with the desire to tread lightly on public pocketbooks. Though she has not taken an in-depth look at the library’s current and projected budgets, Lyons said her first responsibility is to determine how to fund the library’s stated priorities.“Foremost in my mind is serving all areas of the community,” she said. “Where we begin the discussion is to look at what you’re paying right now for your public library and where that funding level is compared to other services. Let’s talk about the role of the library in your life, whether it’s a fair return on the investment or whether you want more.”
This argument reminded me of Ray Oldenburg’s idea of a “third place” where citizens could interact with each other between the spheres of home and work. Could the library really be the center of “engagement and public discourse”? Even though I love reading and learning, I can honestly say I’ve never been to a lecture or discussion at my public library. That isn’t to say that the library doesn’t hold such events – they do – but the events are rare and don’t look interesting enough. (Odd note: our library has been promoting more video game days/friendly competitions for kids. I understand that the library is a safe place and that you want kids around books but are video game competitions really the way to get kids to read?)
I wonder how many residents see the library as a center of civic discussion and engagement (or want to see it as such). I would think another viewpoint is more common, particularly among middle to upper-class Americans: the library is more like a free (or really cheap) bookstore or movie rental place. Many Americans don’t read regularly; I’ve seen different statistics that suggest somewhere around 50% of American adults don’t read one book a year (see some other 2009 statistics about reading from the National Endowment for the Arts here and read the full report “Reading on the Rise” here). And libraries have made this shift along with patrons: they now offer a wide range of electronic services. I understand providing computers – not everyone has access to the Internet and this is a very important feature. But I don’t quite understand the DVD (and to a lesser extend CD) craze as many of these don’t promote discussion and learning about civic issues. In the end, perhaps this is the mindset: I’m paying for the library through my taxes and since I want to be entertained, the library should have what I want.
I do think we need more “third places” in our society but I think libraries have a long way to go before they are truly the third most important place for “engagement and public discourse.”