Opinion

Why Libraries Are Still Crucial Community Anchors

Why Libraries Are Still Crucial Community Anchors

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Workers help install Donald Lipski's new art piece "Hiding My Candy" at the new San Diego Central Library.

A few years ago, when the city was deciding whether to go forward with San Diego’s new Central Library, there was discussion around town about the future of public libraries.

Did we need to replace the 1954 Central Library? (Most said yes.) Was San Diego Public Library focused on downtown at the expense of neighborhoods? (Half of the 35 neighborhood libraries have been built, rebuilt or expanded since 1989, with more projects planned.) Did a grand new structure make sense with a digital shift under way? Do libraries have a future? What does that look like?

Fix San Diego Opinion logoLet me get one thing out of the way.

People don’t generally associate libraries with high-tech innovation. I get asked regularly about our quaint old card catalogs only to explain that they were digitized decades ago. San Diego Public Library’s catalog went digital in 1984 with remote access via Telnet and dial-up added in 1994. Internet access began in the city’s branches that same year, using the then-current browser, Netscape 1.0. In 2001, our libraries started circulating eBooks online. Three years later, free WiFi arrived in all of the city’s locations. All this is just to say that technology per se is familiar and unintimidating to libraries.

But more fundamental things are changing. Books and information used to be scarce. Public libraries, by facilitating sharing within their communities, were a solution to that problem. We still do that for all sorts of materials, building access to current technology. Though that service is changing – more so for encyclopedias, less so for picture books – it still has value, especially to those who have the least.

Now it’s attention that is chronically, critically scarce, and it’s the facilitated sharing of expertise, assistance, curation, community rooms, workspaces, storytimes, early learning spaces and the like that has rocketed in value. Attention-sustaining goods are not new to libraries and the shift in emphasis is one that libraries have been responding to for a long time. That’s reflected in the new Central Library and throughout San Diego’s public libraries.

The future of libraries includes some unchanged, but often overlooked things. Public libraries offer community membership for free. Live in the city? Get a library card. Just arrived from across the globe? Get a library card. And that community membership is expanding. Partnerships increasingly allow library card holders to borrow passes to local institutions like the New Children’s Museum and the San Diego Museum of Art. The library of the future is a community hub that extends beyond the library itself.

There are challenges. Digital Rights Management (DRM), the code in most commercial digital content, controls who can and cannot use that content on which device, when they can access it and what they can do with it. DRM-ed eBooks and other content are licensed for use, not purchased. This is a major hurdle for libraries and it’s sometimes remarked that if libraries didn’t exist, it’d be impossible to create them now. How libraries, publishers, consumers and the law respond to DRM will shape libraries in ways yet unknown.

There are more mundane challenges. We’d like to be open longer. We’d like our online and logistics systems to be more nimble and advanced. We’d like to experiment more, which also means failing more. To move beyond those challenges we need the public’s support and input, met by libraries that are responsive and engaged with their communities.

Given the disruption that digitization and networks are causing in other areas, it’s understandable that some question libraries’ future. A deeper look reveals those same forces to be creating new value and possibility for sharing, for community, and for libraries.

Jeffrey Davis manages a San Diego Public Library neighborhood branch. Davis’ commentary has been edited for clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here. Want to respond? Submit a commentary.

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53 comments
David Cohen
David Cohen

Worry not. Vibrant public libraries, including neighborhood branches, are here to stay. The public and elected officials recognize their importance, notwithstanding the pro forma, anti-tax Libertarian objections. There is no credible battle to be fought over this.

David Cohen
David Cohen subscriber

Worry not. Vibrant public libraries, including neighborhood branches, are here to stay. The public and elected officials recognize their importance, notwithstanding the pro forma, anti-tax Libertarian objections. There is no credible battle to be fought over this.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Wow, an opinion piece that relies on emotional appeal and is devoid of any data, statistics, reasoned argument or evidence of anything. "Do it for the children" is the argument of those that have no real rational argument.

Pat Downs
Pat Downs

Never underestimate the value of a public library to the most vulnerable in our community--our children. https://www.facebook.com/notes/pat-downs/its-a-wonderful-life-public-libraries/415384482636It's a Wonderful Life, Public Libraries!https://www.facebook.com/notes/pat-downs/its-a-wonderful-life-public-libraries/415384482636It's a Wonderful Life, Public Libraries! Just like George Bailey in the classic film, many communities across the country are getting a glimpse of what life might be like without their local public library- and it's not so wonderful. Jimmy Stewart's ...

Matt Finish
Matt Finish subscriber

Libby, you miss the point like so many other well intentioned, but ultimately misguided do-gooders. We're not saying libraries don't do any good. We're saying the good they do is not worth the cost. The problem with the absolutists that insist on spending huge sums of money on every feel-good program that comes alone is that they never compare the benefits to the cost. Whether it's call boxes along the road that almost nobody uses, or the 88 million dollar Taj Majal that was built in downtown to give half million dollar condos to people who are supposedly "poor" (Thanks VOSD for that article). It's not that they never did any good, it's that they didn't do enough good relative to the cost, the lost opportunities that accompany the squandering of those funds, and the further lost opportunities paying interest on the debt they helped accumulate.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Libraries seek to justify their continued existence in a age that has past them by through the old "we are doing it for the poor" mantra. The fact is there are a lot better ways to spend $40 million dollars a year to get the poor access to publications and the internet than these monuments to times gone by. Also there is an inefficiency of having multiple welfare mechanisms, if we want to spend millions on wealth redistribution there are better government channels and more needed services than libraries.

Libby
Libby

Those who believe that Libraries are not a crucial part of American culture and society are ignoring lower income citizens of our city. Not everyone has WiFi, or even a computer, but our society insists that we do in order to best interact with city, county, and federal governments. Work applications are increasingly online. Libraries offer free access to computers, and in neighborhood libraries, computers are well-used. Most importantly, libraries are full of staff who are willing and able to spend the time to help patrons to navigate what can be an intimidating interface. The library offers books in print, on audio recording, and in electronic formats, and even video education and entertainment. If even a small subset of our communities uses these resources, they have served their purpose. Those who discount services catering to those among us with the most meager resources are severely lacking in their own education.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Are public libraries "crucial" today? Clearly no. There are alternatives that are easily accessible from any computer and probably cheaper overall than the cost to the taxpayer of public libraries. I have a substantial collection of technical publications and haven't used a public library in decades, but even if I did use a library and it closed for good, there are easy alternatives so the library is not crucial by definition.. I understand that a library employee, seeing the growing irrelevance of libraries, would want to influence public opinion to protect his employment, but no where in this article do I see a logical case being made that public libraries are crucial. Politicians and the wealthy who can stamp their name on them as monuments to their own hubris certainly see the benefit of libraries, but for the average citizen they are just another government waste, one that will go the way of public horse watering troughs later than they logically should, but eventually gone nonetheless.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Are public libraries "crucial" today? Clearly no. There are alternatives that are easily accessible from any computer and probably cheaper overall than the cost to the taxpayer of public libraries. I have a substantial collection of technical publications and haven't used a public library in decades, but even if I did use a library and it closed for good, there are easy alternatives so the library is not crucial by definition.. I understand that a library employee, seeing the growing irrelevance of libraries, would want to influence public opinion to protect his employment, but no where in this article do I see a logical case being made that public libraries are crucial. Politicians and the wealthy who can stamp their name on them as monuments to their own hubris certainly see the benefit of libraries, but for the average citizen they are just another government waste, one that will go the way of public horse watering troughs later than they logically should, but eventually gone nonetheless.

Mike Delahunt
Mike Delahunt

So how does any of this justify our new multi-million dollar homeless day care center?

Mike Delahunt
Mike Delahunt subscriber

So how does any of this justify our new multi-million dollar homeless day care center?

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann

Why don't San Diego's public libraries lend things like tools, cake pans, seeds, and musical instruments as other libraries do?

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

Why don't San Diego's public libraries lend things like tools, cake pans, seeds, and musical instruments as other libraries do?

David Cohen
David Cohen

There is still "very little conversation" about that in San Diego, and less is needed. Signing out on this non-topic.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Actually library funding is dropping in a lot of areas, libraries themselves are branching out into being public internet kiosks and public bathrooms to prop up declining hard book usage, and sooner or later it will catch up despite the fiction of the necessity of libraries. The explosion in personal connectivity is just beginning, and it eliminates the need for these expensive dinosaurs. It will take libraries a long time to fully decline as unions and people rich enough and influential enough to build monuments to themselves try to keep the corpse walking, but libraries are going the way of hitching posts and horse troughs, of pagers and rolls of coins for the payphones. A couple decades ago there was very little conversation about the need for libraries. The times they are a changin.

David Cohen
David Cohen subscriber

There is still "very little conversation" about that in San Diego, and less is needed. Signing out on this non-topic.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Actually library funding is dropping in a lot of areas, libraries themselves are branching out into being public internet kiosks and public bathrooms to prop up declining hard book usage, and sooner or later it will catch up despite the fiction of the necessity of libraries. The explosion in personal connectivity is just beginning, and it eliminates the need for these expensive dinosaurs. It will take libraries a long time to fully decline as unions and people rich enough and influential enough to build monuments to themselves try to keep the corpse walking, but libraries are going the way of hitching posts and horse troughs, of pagers and rolls of coins for the payphones. A couple decades ago there was very little conversation about the need for libraries. The times they are a changin.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Wow, an opinion piece that relies on emotional appeal and is devoid of any data, statistics, reasoned argument or evidence of anything. "Do it for the children" is the argument of those that have no real rational argument.

Matt Finish
Matt Finish

Libby, you miss the point like so many other well intentioned, but ultimately misguided do-gooders. We're not saying libraries don't do any good. We're saying the good they do is not worth the cost. The problem with the absolutists that insist on spending huge sums of money on every feel-good program that comes alone is that they never compare the benefits to the cost. Whether it's call boxes along the road that almost nobody uses, or the 88 million dollar Taj Majal that was built in downtown to give half million dollar condos to people who are supposedly "poor" (Thanks VOSD for that article). It's not that they never did any good, it's that they didn't do enough good relative to the cost, the lost opportunities that accompany the squandering of those funds, and the further lost opportunities paying interest on the debt they helped accumulate.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Libraries seek to justify their continued existence in a age that has past them by through the old "we are doing it for the poor" mantra. The fact is there are a lot better ways to spend $40 million dollars a year to get the poor access to publications and the internet than these monuments to times gone by. Also there is an inefficiency of having multiple welfare mechanisms, if we want to spend millions on wealth redistribution there are better government channels and more needed services than libraries.

Augmented Ballot
Augmented Ballot

Are libraries crucial? Are parks? Are movie theaters? I think what you're asking is: are libraries an essential public good requiring government support? No, I suppose not. But are they valuable, are they worthwhile? I'd say yes, but sure, make your case otherwise. All you've said is that you can get what you want without. That's fine, your choice. Meanwhile the web has been around for 20 years and libraries remain busy and circulation high. (Happy to provide details if you like.) Other people are demonstrating plainly that libraries are of value to them. If that stops -- if people start finding it's no longer useful to share books, work spaces, internet access, meeting rooms, storytimes, and so on -- I'll join you in standing up to the powerful librarian lobby and their 3.5% of the General Fund. In the meantime, drop by. You may find something here you like.

David Cohen
David Cohen

Tell that to the people of all ages who crowd into the unrealistically-small Mission Hills branch library, including those who look on the shelves for the book(s) they requested out of the hundreds sitting there that have been sent over from other SDPL sites using the "hold" (really, interlibrary loan) process.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann

Jim, what are some cheaper alternatives that are at least as effective at facilitating social mobility?

Augmented Ballot
Augmented Ballot subscriber

Are libraries crucial? Are parks? Are movie theaters? I think what you're asking is: are libraries an essential public good requiring government support? No, I suppose not. But are they valuable, are they worthwhile? I'd say yes, but sure, make your case otherwise. All you've said is that you can get what you want without. That's fine, your choice. Meanwhile the web has been around for 20 years and libraries remain busy and circulation high. (Happy to provide details if you like.) Other people are demonstrating plainly that libraries are of value to them. If that stops -- if people start finding it's no longer useful to share books, work spaces, internet access, meeting rooms, storytimes, and so on -- I'll join you in standing up to the powerful librarian lobby and their 3.5% of the General Fund. In the meantime, drop by. You may find something here you like.

David Cohen
David Cohen subscriber

Tell that to the people of all ages who crowd into the unrealistically-small Mission Hills branch library, including those who look on the shelves for the book(s) they requested out of the hundreds sitting there that have been sent over from other SDPL sites using the "hold" (really, interlibrary loan) process.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

Jim, what are some cheaper alternatives that are at least as effective at facilitating social mobility?

Matt Finish
Matt Finish subscriber

As always, great analysis!

amy roth
amy roth

Some people are against everything. Back in the stone age, they'd have been against the caveman who threw the bone into the air. "Back in your cave!" they'd have cried. "That's your heritage!!"

amy roth
amy roth subscribermember

Some people are against everything. Back in the stone age, they'd have been against the caveman who threw the bone into the air. "Back in your cave!" they'd have cried. "That's your heritage!!"

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

How do you lend seeds?

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

It took 20 years for the payphone industry to die, up until a little while ago we taxpayers were still chipping in for roadside emergency phones. When the roots rot out the tree doesn't fall right away, but if libraries sold stock I wouldn't buy as a two decade investment. Libraries have outlived their usefulness, they are desperately trying to reinvent themselves as a welfare program. It won't work in the long run.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

It took 20 years for the payphone industry to die, up until a little while ago we taxpayers were still chipping in for roadside emergency phones. When the roots rot out the tree doesn't fall right away, but if libraries sold stock I wouldn't buy as a two decade investment. Libraries have outlived their usefulness, they are desperately trying to reinvent themselves as a welfare program. It won't work in the long run.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Do libraries have a built in user base? Certainly, and not all of them bums there for the bathrooms or people surfing porn on the computers. If you give away stuff for free people will take it, but this special interest group making use of libraries does have alternatives. If the metric is "give it away on the taxpayer dime and if someone takes it it's worth doing" then that's an abysmally low bar that can be replicated asking the taxpayer to pay for anything. The bar for reallocation of citizens money isn't "will people take it", it's "is it a necessary function that has no alternative". Libraries once met that standard, but they no longer do, they have expanded from books to peddling computer porn, bathrooms for bums, and hip hop music to keep the user base, but these artificial inflations are the sign of a function that the taxpayer no longer should be paying for. The $40 million dollars a year could provide low cost or free internet where it is needed, could build infrastructure that provides jobs, could do a lot more good than it does in these monuments to times before electronic technology, the eyesore faberge Jacobs egg. Heck, you could buy every San Diego school kid a good tablet or laptop, internet service and and a book subscription for what we spend and still have millions left over. We don't need libraries as a form of welfare anymore, it's not the 1800's where books were prohibitively expensive and information was scarce. We don't need to give away music and fiction (which is a substantial part of the circulation numbers, bloated by easy electronic downloads) for free, undercutting our local businesses that sell these non essentials and reducing our tax revenue in the process. Libraries are just another unneeded welfare program milking the taxpayer by invoking a false sense of higher purpose. It's time to allow them to fade away with the past, take a fraction of the budget to maintain a database of needed publications in a low rent area that supports the IT infrastructure, find a better use for the rest of the millions, and leave the supply of nonessentials and luxuries to the businesses that provide tax revenue selling them.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann

If you don't believe that classes and information facilitate social mobility, then you must be opposed to public education.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Not that I see Derek. They offer classes and information, but no where have I seen any neutral study showing the overall effect is a positive social mobility movement. I assume you have such a study?

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann

Jim, do libraries have the effect of facilitating social mobility or not?

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Derek, I never said they were completely ineffective, nor is that the point. Libraries should prove themselves effective, they are taking public resources under the pretense of being an effective welfare program so let them prove they are such, because all I've seen is baseless claims to that effect, like this article. "I am the great and powerful LIBRARY! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann

Jim, do you have some concrete and neutral source evidence that libraries are completely ineffective at facilitating social mobility?

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Derek, that phrasing assumes that libraries are effective at facilitating social mobility. That isn't a given. Perhaps you have some concrete and neutral source evidence that libraries do actually improve peoples lives in a cost effective and substantive degree?

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Do libraries have a built in user base? Certainly, and not all of them bums there for the bathrooms or people surfing porn on the computers. If you give away stuff for free people will take it, but this special interest group making use of libraries does have alternatives. If the metric is "give it away on the taxpayer dime and if someone takes it it's worth doing" then that's an abysmally low bar that can be replicated asking the taxpayer to pay for anything. The bar for reallocation of citizens money isn't "will people take it", it's "is it a necessary function that has no alternative". Libraries once met that standard, but they no longer do, they have expanded from books to peddling computer porn, bathrooms for bums, and hip hop music to keep the user base, but these artificial inflations are the sign of a function that the taxpayer no longer should be paying for. The $40 million dollars a year could provide low cost or free internet where it is needed, could build infrastructure that provides jobs, could do a lot more good than it does in these monuments to times before electronic technology, the eyesore faberge Jacobs egg. Heck, you could buy every San Diego school kid a good tablet or laptop, internet service and and a book subscription for what we spend and still have millions left over. We don't need libraries as a form of welfare anymore, it's not the 1800's where books were prohibitively expensive and information was scarce. We don't need to give away music and fiction (which is a substantial part of the circulation numbers, bloated by easy electronic downloads) for free, undercutting our local businesses that sell these non essentials and reducing our tax revenue in the process. Libraries are just another unneeded welfare program milking the taxpayer by invoking a false sense of higher purpose. It's time to allow them to fade away with the past, take a fraction of the budget to maintain a database of needed publications in a low rent area that supports the IT infrastructure, find a better use for the rest of the millions, and leave the supply of nonessentials and luxuries to the businesses that provide tax revenue selling them.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

If you don't believe that classes and information facilitate social mobility, then you must be opposed to public education.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Not that I see Derek. They offer classes and information, but no where have I seen any neutral study showing the overall effect is a positive social mobility movement. I assume you have such a study?

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

Jim, do libraries have the effect of facilitating social mobility or not?

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Derek, I never said they were completely ineffective, nor is that the point. Libraries should prove themselves effective, they are taking public resources under the pretense of being an effective welfare program so let them prove they are such, because all I've seen is baseless claims to that effect, like this article. "I am the great and powerful LIBRARY! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

Jim, do you have some concrete and neutral source evidence that libraries are completely ineffective at facilitating social mobility?

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Derek, that phrasing assumes that libraries are effective at facilitating social mobility. That isn't a given. Perhaps you have some concrete and neutral source evidence that libraries do actually improve peoples lives in a cost effective and substantive degree?

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Sorry, was just being funny, or trying to. I can't see a seed bank being all that popular outside of rural areas. Seeds are cheap and not that many people grow from seeds.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

I agree Amy. No more of this "Back to the Library" like it's the 1700's! We have grown beyond that. Good point!

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Sorry, was just being funny, or trying to. I can't see a seed bank being all that popular outside of rural areas. Seeds are cheap and not that many people grow from seeds.