The Value of the Library With Walls

I recently received an email from a colleague questioning the future of public library buildings. The thrust of the argument is that as information goes digital will libraries only exist in cyberspace?
Librarians have been discussing the “digital age” for many years (beginning at least as early as 1945 with Vannevar Bush’s article “As We May Think,” The Atlantic Monthly, July 1945). Librarians frequently refer to this possibility as the emergence of the “Virtual Library” or the “Library Without Walls.” Indeed, some have asserted that the vir-tual library will replace the physical library. In this column, I would like to make a case for the value of the “Library With Walls.”
First, I should make clear that I am a strong advocate for library automation. A quick review of my resume reveals my deep and abiding respect for, appreciation of, and advocacy for all library things digital. After all, my professional background includes a lengthy tenure successfully managing a large public library system’s information technology assets and initiatives.
Despite my techno-geek credentials, when I am asked about the “Library Without Walls,” my answer is, “Of course, libraries will continue to evolve and change (as they always have since those earliest days some 4,000 years ago when they were full of clay tablets and papyrus scrolls), but I don’t see this as a case of ‘virtual libraries’ instead of physical libraries. Rather it should be considered as the advent of ‘virtual libraries’ in addition to library buildings.”

The idea of one thing not replacing something else but instead simply adding another option is not new. After all, when TV came along, it was not instead of radio and movies. TV is in addition to radio and movies. And, in another way, when Amazon arrived on the scene, it did not replace Target, Walmart and Borders. Amazon became in addition to Target, Walmart and Borders.

This is not to say that digital information does not impact libraries. Clearly it does. Just like Amazon changed Walmart and TV changed radio, so, too, digital information is changing libraries. We can point to the impact on libraries of the relatively recent shifts brought about by a number of examples, such as the huge impact of the burgeoning use of public-access Internet services resulting in a veritable sea of personal computers in most public libraries, or how replacing reference books and periodical back files with their online equivalents have impacted shelf space utilization in libraries. But to say library as place is no longer important is a sad mistake.

Just look at the numbers. Foot traffic to our libraries is only going up and up. In the last decade, we recorded nearly a sixty percent increase in foot traffic to our libraries in Pueblo County, while the total population of the county increased by only eleven percent. And so far in 2010, visits to libraries are up more than twenty percent when compared with last year’s all-time record. Plus attendance at library sponsored cultural and educational programs and events have increased more than 225%+ in the last few years. Clearly, the library as place is only growing in popularity among the members of our community.

In the end, we must acknowledge that the library is more than just a building where we find information. It also is a community gathering place, a public technology center, a forum to share and debate ideas, and a refuge of opportunity. Robust and vital public libraries share a handful of principles, among them, importantly, is providing welcoming, well equipped and maintained physical facilities which offer inviting space to encourage reading, study, learning, and where people gather to exchange ideas.
This is why new library buildings challenge the stereotype of the library as a stuffy, slightly musty place. Innovative architecture, cutting-edge design, and new customer-service features are bringing more light, personality, and usability to our libraries. And more people.
Libraries are really about people. People are social beings who crave information and the interchange of points of view. The library helps meet this human need by linking people to the human record in all of its formats. The formats of materials in libraries change, but the need for a place to connect—people with information, people with stories, people with ideas, people with people—do not change.
The library is that centralized location where new and emerging in¬formation formats and technologies can be combined with traditional knowledge resources in a user-focused, service-rich environment that supports today’s social and educational patterns of learning and re¬search. Whereas the Internet has tended to isolate people, the library, as a physical place, has done just the opposite. The library as place serves as the centerpiece for establishing intellectual com¬munity and scholarly enterprise.
Long live the public library as a place in our communities.


The library is a learning institution.  First and foremost, the Pueblo City-County Library District (PCCLD) exists to ensure members of our...