The Value of the Public Library

Library | Source: Paul LowryOn Monday morning, I woke up and walked to the office just like any other morning. I usually pass by a number of newspaper boxes along the way, and I scan the day’s headlines. Monday’s headline was – “Talks Fail as Toronto Library Workers Go on Strike“. I didn’t pay much attention at first. Then I did a double take. Wait, what? I didn’t even know the library workers were in negotiations. As a response, termed their ‘contingency plan’, the City of Toronto has shut down every public library in the city for the duration of the strike. As I talked to people on Monday, I realized that no one was expecting this. And then I realized how many people this impacts.

The value of the public library system cannot be measured in monetary terms. It is a social institution and its benefits extend far beyond just borrowing books. I think most people would be hard-pressed to say that they have never used a public library in their lifetimes. Even some of the smallest towns I know of have public libraries. We use them as kids to discover all kinds of fun and exciting books to stimulate our imaginations. We use them throughout school as resources for learning. We use them as adults to both stimulate our imaginations and as resources for learning. So its a shame to see the doors locked on every library in my city.

Libraries Aren’t Just About Books

Libraries today aren’t just about books anymore. Modern libraries still primarily hold books of course, but nowadays you can also download e-books for your e-reader, view books online, download music and borrow DVDs and music CDs. If you can consume it (mentally that is), you can probably borrow it from a library. And that has both financial and environmental benefits.

The Financial Benefits of Libraries

Do you need to own those three bookcases full of mystery novels? Or that giant rack of DVDs? I’m not saying you shouldn’t own anything – there’s nothing wrong with owning your favorite book, movie or TV show. Voting with your money is how you get more of the things you like to be made. But say you own 100 books and 100 movies, at an average cost of $20 each, that’s a $4000 investment. A library card in most cities can be obtained for a minimal cost of $5-20, if not for free, and it gives you access to some, if not all of those books and movies.

The Environmental Benefits of Libraries

Sharing and reusing is always good for the environment. It doesn’t matter whether its books, bikes or cars, the net environmental benefit is proven common sense. One book costs less resources to produce and ship to its end location than 100 books. You might argue that the resource gain in only producing one book is offset by the extra resources required for 100 people to share that book – traveling to and from the library, moving the book around from library branch to library branch. I would argue that its a matter of changing the attitudes of society towards materialism. If more people used the library, there would be more library branches. More library branches means you don’t have to travel as far to get to the library to share the books. In order to enact change, you need to be the change you want to see.

The Social Benefits of Libraries

Libraries aren’t just big houses full of books. They are social hubs and community centers. They provide shelter and a safe learning environment for those who don’t otherwise have access to those basic human needs. They provide access to materials that some might not be able to otherwise afford. They provide internet access to those who can’t afford a computer. I tutor at-risk high school kids at a local library one day a week after school. When I walk into that library, every single week, it is packed with kids, teenagers and adults alike. Speaking to the organization that sponsors the tutoring, the library is one of the ‘places to be’ for kids in the neighborhood. When I walked by the library this week on my way to the alternate tutoring location, I was stunned by the number of people walking up to the door only to find a sign saying that their community hub was closed.

Common Arguments Against Libraries

  • The item I want isn’t always available or at my library branch. If I own the book or movie, I have it at my fingertips whenever I need it.

As a society, I think we need to move away from the ‘I NEED IT NOW AND I NEED IT RIGHT AWAY!’ mentality. Basic economics teaches us about our basic wants and needs, but western materialistic culture has moved a lot of our wants into the needs column. And we need everything NOW! Not even now, frankly, most people needed it yesterday!

You need food and water. You need to learn. You want the latest John Grisham novel and its available for free at the library. Depending on your library, most items are readily available once they have been in circulation for a year or so.

  • I watch my movies and read my books way more than once – I don’t want to have to go to the library and get it every time I want it.

Ok, sure, I agree – if you use something on a daily or even weekly basis, it makes sense to own it. But how many of the books sitting on your bookshelf have you read more than once? If you’re only going to read it once, do you really need to own it?

  • I can afford to buy my own books and movies, so I will leave the library for those who need it.

The more people that use the system, the more the system will grow to accomodate the demand. Just like you can vote with your money when you buy a book, you can vote with your library card when you borrow a book. We all pay for the library with our tax dollars, why not take advantage of it?

This is self-acknowledged social criticism, but its a criticism of myself as much as anyone. I own my share of books and movies – they sit on my bookshelf and for the most part, they collect dust. So now, more and more, I’m a library user.

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