Libraries Now More Than Ever

Keynote address, “A 21st-Century Vision for Libraries” conference, October 13, Islamabad, Pakistan

October 17, 2010

The message of the American Library Association can best be summarized in one word, a word we all understand, a word that holds us together as librarians. That word is “Read.”

“Why do we need libraries when all the information in the world is on the internet?” It’s a tiresome question that American librarians are still being asked despite all our efforts to explain that libraries are needed now more than ever and raise public understanding of what a good library can be. It is especially problematic when the question is being asked by an agency that is funding the library.

Technology has certainly changed the way we do our work, but there is another, bigger challenge facing librarians, and that is the change that is taking place in the way people read.

The competition for our reading time has never been more intense. Much of what guides our decisions about what we will publish in American Libraries magazine is this question: Who is going to read this? More to the point, in what medium do they want it, in what medium is it best delivered? Are they going to want to read it in print? Online? Through email? On a mobile device?

Does it matter what format you are reading in? I once asked Jon Scieszka, the successful author of many books for children, if it mattered whether children are reading books or reading online. It does not matter, he said. “I think that’s a great change that we can make—to stop fighting against children and go where they want to be reading, which is online.”

Librarians in the U.S.A. have struggled with how to best utilize technology and new media, and most of us are in a very good place right now. More and more opportunities, such as e-books, come to us each day. Those who think libraries are unnecessary are those who regard them as book storage facilities and nothing more.

In the United States there has also been a rapid movement toward supplying young people with books that are fun and that make reading a pleasure, even graphic novels, comic books, and video games. These genres appeal to children across all borders. If you do not believe me, try searching “Islamic superhero” on the internet.

Think for a moment about your own reading habits. Do you read for pleasure or out of necessity? What was your introduction to reading? When did it happen? When did you really learn what reading could mean? For me it wasn’t until the 3rd grade that I understood that reading could be a pleasure as well as a necessity. I did not grow up in a house full of books; it was librarians and teachers who made a reader out of me.

How do people become readers? It took me a while to learn that not only was reading enjoyable but it was also absolutely essential for getting a job and living a good life. Young people need to know that this is what librarians do: We lead them into that useful and productive and positive life, a life of inquiry, of knowledge.

It is not hard to find people in the United States who love libraries. It is also not hard to find people who will still ask, “Does anybody go to libraries anymore?” The fact is that free public libraries in the United States have never been more popular, and the current economic situation has driven individuals and families to their libraries in droves—for entertainment and learning.

At the American Library Association, conference speakers—celebrities and authors and ordinary people—almost always talk warmly about that special place in their heart where memories of their childhood libraries rest. A good library for a child is the beginning of a lifetime of joyful learning; a bad library, or no library, can have a lifelong negative impact.

Think about where you get your news, where you read about what is new in the library profession. The best libraries, magazines, and newspapers have redirected resources to the web. They are figuring out ways, such as e-newsletters, to tell stories that will transform their websites into more than just a supplement to print. Forward-looking editors know that we must create entirely new genres, ones that exploit the unique characteristics of the web and not simply transfer stories from the page to the screen. Libraries too must be flexible and resourceful.

Perhaps because I am both a librarian and a journalist, the two professions often seem to be running on parallel tracks. Journalists record the news; librarians preserve the record of human existence. Technology enables us to record more of the human experience more quickly than anyone could have imagined in the previous century.

But what about the problems the world wide web presents? Problems of authority and accuracy? There is so much garbage on the internet. In the United States this has given rise to, which debunks the myths and conspiracy theories that abound online. Librarians play a vital role in helping their patrons separate sense from nonsense.

In the world of publishing, it’s instructive to observe what has happened to newspapers in the last few years. Newspapers were accustomed to operating as high-profit monopolies. That business model has collapsed. Newspapers have created websites that benefit from the growth of online advertising, but the sums are not nearly enough to replace the loss in revenue from circulation and print ads. The same thing is happening to magazines, as we move to web-first publishing. The dilemma of the web is that it offers boundless opportunities to create content—everyone can be a publisher, everyone an author—but it does not offer the same revenue stream to support the development of excellent content.

We are experiencing an economic crisis in the United States and around the world. Most managers in the newspaper industry have reacted to the collapse of their business model with budget cuts, foreign bureau closings, buyouts, layoffs, and reductions. A quarter of all American newspaper jobs have disappeared over the last 20 years. The newspapers responded to the problem by reducing content and quality to be more competitive with bloggers and aggregators. It was the wrong answer, and it may help explain why only 19% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 claim even to look at a daily newspaper. The average age of the American newspaper reader is 55 and rising.

News is the answer to the question, “What happened?” In publishing, we ask ourselves why the world needs the information we are about to place before them. Do they want it? Are they willing to pay for it? How do we distinguish our content from the rest of the media deluge? Readers want their information immediately. I sometimes joke that people want to read the news before it happens.

In some ways, American libraries have been ahead of newspapers in recognizing that people’s reading habits have changed. Libraries all over the world have developed multimedia collections, digitization projects, a dynamic online presence, and educational and entertaining public programs. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt is the finest example in the world of library as place, as destination, and as high-technology haven. The Library of Congress has taken the lead in digitizing its massive and unique collections of rare material, thereby making them widely available.

What search engines do you use? Are you worried that library users are being “Googlized”? Contrary to being a threat to libraries, Google has partnered with some of the largest and best university libraries in the United States to digitize their collections—Harvard, Columbia, and many others. The people who worry about libraries being Googlized are people who think of libraries as book warehouses staffed by custodians who specialize in silence and stamping books. We have moved beyond that. Google is not competition; it is a tool.

Consider the following facts:

  • Library use in the USA is at an all-time high; 63% of adults in the U.S. have public library cards. This is all voluntary; people get library cards because they want to.
  • More books are being published now than ever—almost 300,000 separate titles a year in English alone.
  • Reference librarians in U.S. public and academic libraries answer more than 7.2 million questions every week. Standing single file, the line of questioners would stretch from Islamabad to Paris.
  • College and university librarians in the U.S. answer 72.8 million questions every year. You never hear about this in the newspaper.
  • There are more public libraries than McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S.—a total of 16,549 including branches.
  • Public libraries are the number one point of access for people without internet connections at home, school, or work. And 98.9% of public libraries provide public access to the internet and, not unimportantly, assistance with interpreting the accuracy and relevance of search results.

Does your library have a great website? What kinds of databases are offered at your library? Information wants to be free, but it isn’t unless libraries make it so. Most individuals cannot afford to subscribe to databases like MedLine. But databases are where the best and most current information lives, especially scientific and medical research. And what about e-books? They too are changing the way people read, and sales are skyrocketing.

A 2006 public opinion poll conducted for the American Library Association found that 92% of respondents expect libraries to be needed in the future, despite (or maybe because) of the ever-increasing amount of information available via the internet.

Conducting opinion polls and surveys is one of the most important ways library organizations can raise awareness of the value of libraries to their communities.

Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2009–2010 is a survey that assessed public access to computers, the internet, and internet-related services in U.S. public libraries and the impact of library funding changes on connectivity, technology deployment, and sustainability. The report provides information that can help library directors and IT staff benchmark and advocate for technology resources in communities across the nation. Such data is also of importance for policymakers at local, state, and federal levels, manufacturers of information and communication technologies, and the communities served by public libraries.

The American Library Association is a legally nonprofit educational organization, and it accredits programs of library and information science and technology education through its Office for Accreditation. Accreditation is a voluntary system of evaluation of higher education institutions and programs, a collegial process based on self-evaluation and peer-assessment for improvement of academic quality and public accountability. The process entails the assessment of educational quality and the continued enhancement of educational operations through the development and validation of standards. Setting standards is another central activity for effective associations.

The American Library Association and libraries throughout the country are putting a great deal of effort into educating the public directly—not about libraries but about the wealth of information and services available in and through libraries of all kinds in every medium. Visit to learn about ALA’s public awareness "Campaign for America’s Libraries" and for the advocacy arm, which is run by ALA’s recently opened Office for Library Advocacy.

Advocacy in the United States has come full circle in the current economic crisis, with much of our work moving from the federal or national level to the local level, particularly for public libraries that are funded primarily with municipal, state, or county dollars.

So what is the future for libraries? What is our vision for contemporary libraries going to be?

Stop for a moment and imagine something. Imagine that you have a personal librarian, one who can tailor a daily reading delivery to your specific tastes and needs, showing you the latest and most interesting writing on your work and for your pleasure and delivering it in a format that allows you to read it onscreen, download it to an e-book, or print it out. The day is coming for us all. In fact, you can start planning now for how you are going to actively deliver information in various media to your community of users before they even know they want it.

Information specialists can no longer afford to operate passive repositories. They must be aggressive navigators and aggregators who anticipate the needs of their clients. Our schools cannot be only schools of library and information science, they must be schools of library and information science and technology. No librarian can afford to graduate from a LIST program and not know how to create a website, how to publish an e-newsletter, and how to utilize social networking to deliver library service.

If you do not see yourself as a technology person, if you are worried about your future, recruit and mentor talented young professionals and learn from them. They are part of a generation that was born to the digital age, as opposed to someone like me who can remember when the first telephone, the first refrigerator, and central heating were installed in my home. Like many of you, perhaps, I am not drawn to technology—but I am drawn to what technology can do.

In the United States, libraries have the longstanding reputation of being among the most economical of all institutions. Librarians know how to get the most out of a dollar. This has helped them become beloved institutions and good indicators of the quality of life in a community and its conduciveness to economic development. Companies want to locate in a community that will attract talented employees; libraries help build such communities, where people want to live and raise their children.

Let me give you 12 timeless reasons why libraries are good for the country and why librarians cannot be replaced by search engines:

  1. They sustain democracy.
  2. They break down social boundaries by being open to all.
  3. They level the playing field between the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor.
  4. They value the individual and independent thinking and learning beyond the classroom.
  5. They nourish creativity.
  6. They open children’s minds to the world around them.
  7. They return high dividends on a relatively small investment.
  8. They build communities and can be the intellectual centers of the communities they serve, whether that is a town, a university, a school, an organization, or a business.
  9. They support families with lifelong learning opportunities.
  10. They build technology skills.
  11. They provide a safe haven, a sanctuary.
  12. They preserve the past, the record of human existence.

At the American Library Association, we know that the experience of libraries does not always live up to the promise. The ALA does not the control the quality of individual libraries; it sets standards. That is as it should be. It is the librarian members of the association who are saying that they cannot afford to sit and wait, to build libraries and be certain that patrons will come to use them. We must tell the library story, with all its potential, loudly and clearly.

As a journalist and a librarian, I have learned to tell the library story in the words of others. People want their stories to be told. Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, gave American Libraries an exclusive interview a few years ago. Unlike many wealthy Americans, Gates has given millions of dollars to libraries for computers, and at the same time maintains that if he had to choose between books and computers, he would choose books. He asserts, however, that this is a false dichotomy; you do not have to choose. I refuse to choose. I am a book lover. Books, in fact, are a technology, and a very successful one. The choice between books and technology is not one that you have to make. Quite the opposite.

It always amused me in the years leading up to the year 2000 when predictors of the future, blinded by their own brilliance, had a field day predicting “the paperless society.” More books are published today than ever, more paper is consumed in offices today than ever. In my view that’s just fine. If cultivated properly, trees are a renewable resource, much like asparagus. Computers and all their associated products are more likely to be polluting landfills for the next thousand years than is any book or copies of American Libraries magazine.

There was once a theory about television in the U.S., that it would make teachers obsolete. By placing a television in front of children, it was said, one teacher in a central location could teach thousands, millions of children all at once. No more teachers were needed. We know how that worked out. We know that this is not how education works.

A few years ago, an American writer named Nicholson Baker got it right, much to the indignation of many American librarians, in his book The Folded Leaf. He proved what a mistake it had been for libraries to discard their printed newspapers in favor of microfilm. As a profession, we had had the audacity to believe that with microfilm we had arrived. Newspapers could be stored in small areas, made available on microfilm readers, and the print copies were discarded in large number. The problem is that this predated digitization. Now we know that you can get very poor digital copies from microfilm and very good digital copies if they are made from the paper originals.

With every new technology the work of librarians and archivists multiplies. Materials must be preserved again with the arrival of each new format, and the earlier formats require the preservation of the machinery required to read them. And what do you do with the handwritten letters of a literary giant once you have digitized them? Throw them out? They also must be curated and preserved. Our work continues to multiply, as do the options for how we can reach more and more readers through our work.

Yet there are people who continue to ask why we need libraries when everything is on the internet. Why do we need libraries? I often ask other professionals the same question. To physicians: All the medical information in world is on the web, right? So why do we need doctors? Isn’t all the legal information anyone could ever need on the web? Ask yourself then, why do we need lawyers? Librarians are educators. And every doctor, every lawyer, every journalist, owes a big debt to the people who educated them.

We are all either parents or aunts or uncles or cousins, and we see young children using the computer. Try this experiment: Sit down with a 10-year-old and do some Googling. Ask the child to analyze, interpret, and assess the results of a search. Will the child know what to do with the answers that come up? Can children explain a play on words? Can they identify internet myths? Scientific lies? Medical scams? It is essential that they learn how to tell the difference between a fact and a hoax.

My background is public libraries. I spent almost 20 years working a large urban American library, the Detroit Public Library. I developed early in my career the will to demonstrate to the public that libraries represent a continuum of learning. Read to your babies, then take them to storytimes at the library, get them in the library habit with books and programs and computers and coaching, make sure they have a good school library and that they transition to the university library, and then make sure they are backed at work by a good corporate knowledge management system and that they return to the public library with their children. A full circle of lifelong learning.

The competition for our reading time is great, however, with a multitude of available distractions. But we write to be read. We do not want people to see articles in American Libraries, we want people to read them. Has a colleague ever said to you, “Congratulations, I saw your article in such-and-such magazine.” Note how he carefully used the word “saw” and not the word “read.” If you are writing to be read, it’s an important message.

Both the American Libraries website, which publishes original weekly news stories, and American Libraries Direct have transformed American Libraries magazine from monthly deadlines to weekly deadlines. The internet and e-mail have transformed the way we gather news and the way people read news in ways that were unimaginable 10 years ago. We publish video, audio, and text all fully searchable, linkable, and archivable, and it’s all available to you online free, no borders. We are librarians without borders. Just as American Libraries magazine is no longer simply a print journal but a suite of products in multiple media, so libraries must be repositories of knowledge that is accessible in whatever medium it was created.

Am I saying that you should do it the American way in your country and you will succeed? No. Take what you can learn from the experience of others and make your own decisions. The future of libraries belongs not only to you but to those who will use libraries, who use them well, and whose lives will be enriched by them. The future of libraries belongs to those who read.

The "20st-Century Vision for Libraries" conference, October 13-14 in Islamabad, Pakistan, was sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and the Pakistan Library Association. Leonard Kniffel is editor and publisher of American Libraries and attended the conference at the invitation of the U.S. State Department. This speech was updated and delivered in part by the author in Brasov, Romania, September 23, 2011. 


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