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Better Than Google

Professor of Library Science, Wayne Wiegand has just written a great new book entitled, Part of Our Lives: a people's history of the American public library.  While the appeal of this book is obvious to me, anyone with an interest in American social history, or in the state of public libraries would find this book fascinating.

Today, more than ever, we see prognosticators predicting the end of the public library.  By some measurements, this may have some credence. For example, reference transactions have declined markedly since 1999.  The days when a librarian armed with the World Almanac and a telephone book could answer any and all reference questions is certainly no longer true.  The Internet, and of course, Google, have pretty much obviated the need to call the library to settle a bet, or win a trivia contest.

By looking at the past, we can see that public libraries have always struggled to define their roles.  Time was, no self-respecting library would collect fiction.  The early libraries had loftier goals, to educate people, not provide them with leisure activities. Gradually, as more novels were published, more people were literate, and actually had leisure time, the clamor of the populace for fiction won out.  I imagine this reluctant change was similar to when libraries began buying videotapes in the early 1980s, due to the public's insistence.  What would library pioneer Ben Franklin think, not just of James Patterson novels, but video games, DVDs and other library materials not necessarily used for the betterment of the "young tradesman", he was so anxious to educate.

Today's libraries, faced with shrinking budgets. declining library visits, lower circulation and fewer reference transactions, are looking for new ways to remain relevant.  Certainly, there are no lack of ideas. Do you want a maker space area with our new 3D printer, or a place to watch a lecture, learn a skill or a craft, have a rousing book discussion, or even just a quiet place to read or study, the library is or will be providing for all these possibilities.  And, at $42 a year per U.S. citizen, can you think of a better bargain?  Oh, and the library is better than Google, anyday.

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