As someone who still loves to hold a hardcover book and turn paper pages, I can’t help but wonder if libraries could make a real comeback. Two situations have caused me to ponder this lately. 1) What today’s college students think is “research” makes me cringe when I’m grading papers. 2) Libraries offer more than good reads – including a sense of community that is hard to find anywhere else these days…not even at the local, trendy coffee shops – and believe me, I love a good, trendy coffee shop.
While libraries might be of interest to people, they have been losing business. A quiet place without air pods in their ears or an app on their phone equals boredom for most American youth. Adults increasingly have demanding careers. When not at work, parents are running with their kids. Too many senior citizens can’t afford to retire. Many people who previously loved the library just don’t have-or make-the time to go.
The bottom line: libraries are surviving, but not thriving. While we can blame our hectic lifestyles for a portion of this truth, technology is largely responsible.
By technology, I’m not just referring to kids being on their phones. It’s become too easy to turn on our smart tv’s and plop down. Households have multiple laptops, phones, desktops and iPads all under one roof – mine included.
In full disclosure, I give Amazon plenty of book business and once my kids hit high school, we rarely went to the library anymore. We all were in school, worked, or were on fields and in hockey rinks. Outside of my bible and textbooks for teaching, any other reading was a luxury I couldn’t afford for a few years. But, I still liked knowing my favorite local libraries were there if I wanted them.
I’m not a fan of The Atlantic, but I came across an article with this quote that summarized what many feel: “Americans love libraries. No, wait, scratch that. Americans love the idea that they love libraries. A new Pew survey published Tuesday finds that while people report feeling strongly about the importance of public libraries in their communities, those people are actually using libraries less and less.”
That quote comes from the appropriately titled piece, Keep the Library, Lose the Books. The article caught my attention because I was fortunate to have visited the Trinity College Library in Dublin last summer and their photo looks like my photos below.
Prior to COVID, I started going to the library periodically and then, my 20-something kids tagged along if they were home. I wasn’t a regular attender, but after the first visit back in a long time, I was reacquainted with quiet. The loudness of life tends to overwhelm me, so the quiet was the main attraction when I stepped back into the spacious, book-lined rooms.
Soon, I rediscovered the joy of reading. There was no pressure to put down the book, jump on the laptop and do a little extra work like I would at home. Being in the library reminded me that reading is a worthy endeavor.
I lifted my eyes one Saturday afternoon to see young Moms and older Grandmas walking their precious toddlers into the library preschool readings. The animated book read was followed by a craft and snack. Advertisements invited children’s, teens and adults to unique workshops. There were interesting classes advertised for the upcoming weeks. Holiday decorating. Writing fiction. Knitting. There was something for everyone.
Arriving back home after my morning library inspiration, I settled into my online courses, wincing and grumbling about what my students use as sources when writing their “research” papers.
What we deem ‘research’ has vastly changed since I earned my degrees a couple decades ago. :Library of Congress:
Photo: Thomas Jefferson Building: Library of Congress–the largest library in the world.
Even though I’ve been in HR the last year, I still teach college courses online and in the 22 years of being in education, there has been an astounding turn regarding what’s acceptable to claim as ‘truth’. Everyone is an authority, particularly those the least “well-read”. Some students firmly believe that long-proven historical truths are myths. Arguments ensue as to whether or not the world is flat. However, nothing perplexes me more than what modern college students deem academic research.
The oldest to youngest students and all ages in between-think “credible” sources include Buzzfeed, Refinery29, Reddit, BoredPanda, etc. Good for the creators of (mostly) entertainment and opinion reading that keeps people attached to their screens, killing off their God-designated lifetime of hours by the clicks. These sites are making good money but students using such material as factual data is no longer comical.
It’s not only college students. Even those seeking facts about which new dishwasher to purchase or car or water filter click on the sites “reviewing” their proposed new dishwasher. Many reviews are accurate. Many more are not. When someone receives a new book from a publisher in exchange for their honest review, I tend to believe the review. When someone reviews 27 free beauty products and they all receive a 5-star rating, I’m skeptical.When you’re honestly trying to find credible data about the new laptop you want to purchase, Google virtually never delivers the right, accurate or closest “hit” to your search bar words, even when you click “verbatim” seeking results. Except when words such as Macys, Kohls, etc., are typed in the search bar. In the old days, if you clicked page 7 of your search results, you might get close to real data about the laptop you originally typed in the search bar. Now, page 7 often delivers nearly the same content as the first results page.
What you get as your first thousand hits are the organizations who have paid to be in the results line-up or what Google has determined is best for you to read. We all know this. I just can’t get over that despite this public awareness, people still believe what Google tells them.
For the last few years, I’ve attempted to get students to at least use Googlescholar for projects and major research papers. Even this seems to be too much of a chore in a 300-level course. What general studies students are slowly realizing is that the libraries aren’t just for the medical and law students. They are becoming the only way to earn a grade above D in the higher-level courses. Sifting through the nonsense Google and Wikipedia spew out has actually become more time consuming for students and consumers alike, than learning how to use ProQuest and other databases at university online libraries such as Purdue University’s online library system.
Photo: Robotic Book Retrieval System: Liberty University
While evaluating job candidates and employees’ social media has been common practice in the last five years, 10 or 15 years ago, people still believed their information was private, and posts and photos were forever deleted when the user deleted them. Even though we are finally holding congressional hearings with Google and Facebook questioning their silent take over of the online steering wheels, their manipulation of search results is far from new. Years ago, every text, snapchat photo or FB post was already being embedded in the CyberWorld.
I’m sure some of you have seen blatantly false information on highly professional looking websites. There will be little if any enforcement of cyber laws, even when a few are passed. The internet’s expanse far exceeds legal capabilities. Not to mention, the current technologies in Silicon Valley, in Seattle, etc., are years ahead of us.
Given a choice, most of us will still reach for a button before we reach for a book. Especially if that book requires a car ride. However, as a result of the utter discombobulation of internet research, people are frustrated when they really are attempting to locate “truth” or at minimum, historical data or current information that’s remotely accurate. Thus, maybe libraries can make a comeback – even if people choose online libraries, they will be more reliable than Wikipedia.
Wikipedia: “Wikipedia is a wiki, meaning anyone can edit almost any page…”
Wikipedia: “The goal of a Wikipedia article is to create a comprehensive and neutrally written summary of existing mainstream knowledge about a topic. Wikipedia does not publish original research.”
Click on images, links and red ink for sources. University of Dublin photos are my own.