Picking Up Where We Left Off

Like any librarian trying to understand where our “new media” (and access to said media!) are taking us, I’m a tad worried about the future of libraries – especially of public libraries since they’re so tightly tied to local financing.  E-books are a worry (how do libraries fit into the economic model?); audio books are a worry (iTunes, anyone?); video formats are a worry (when Netflix streaming only costs about $10 a month, why waste gas on a visit to the library?).

And yet … it may be that we can now re-focus on our original role as “educational institutions.”  We may be able to get back to our roots and continue the job for which public libraries were originally intended.

When America’s public libraries formed in the first decades prior to the Civil War there wasn’t much in the way of “fiction” that would be allowed onto the public library shelves.  This continued to be the case for many years, until the 1880s and 90s with what came to be called the “fiction controversy.”

Fiction – the popular novel – was the DVD of its day and there were several companies doing a brisk business of lending books by mail, charging fees (of course) and in the process whetting people’s appetites for even more books.  Eventually, the fiction readers grew tired of paying to read and wondered why they couldn’t borrow these popular titles from their local public libraries.

This lead to an “identity crisis” in the profession, but the eventual result was a quid pro quo of “fiction books on the shelves” in return for “more enthusiastic tax payers.”

It may be that the ready – and cheap – availability of popular material will force public libraries to refocus on their educational mission.



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