In the late 1800's and early 1900's, Andrew Carnegie gave away tens of millions of dollars of his own money to establish thousands of public libraries across the country. Until then, book were a rarity in people's homes--as they were expensive and were not published in the numbers that they are today. Personal book collections were for the rich only. But Carnegie wanted to provide the information--and the power--contained in books to the general masses, and he realized public libraries were the way to do it. He insisted that facilities he funded featured "open stacks"--meaning people could browse and select their reading materials instead of asking a librarian to go through "closed stacks" kept behind the circulation desk to get a book. It was a revolutionary change that turned the US into a country of voracious readers and writers.
Carnegie's library model worked well for a hundred years--until the Digital Age completely changed the way people consume information. Books and magazines can be accessed through e-readers, tablets and the internet--without having to visit the library or bookstore. The research volumes taking up rows of racks can now be searched instantly on-line and nearly all of the information that Carnegie opened up to the masses with his public library is available at your fingertips through your phone. It's another revolution that has "rekindled" (pun somewhat intended) America's love for reading.
But that leaves the Public Library in limbo. It's core function--to serve as a resource of information for all--has basically been usurped by the internet--which is more convenient, faster and more comprehensive than any brick and mortar library could ever hope to be. So that has many libraries moving away from what their original intent was and into fields that are somewhat questionable use of public dollars. Take the new East Branch of the Milwaukee Public Library--which features a fireplace in its "reading and reflection room" along with 99 apartment units. That's right, in Milwaukee you can now live at the Library (a dream come true for all of the homeless people who currently reside at our libraries during business hours). The proposed Appleton Public Library on the bluffs overlooking the Fox River will feature "ample public meeting space" and an expanded children's activity area.
Is that really what a Public Library should be about? Fireplaces? Meeting rooms? Kids play areas? I guess those are easier to sell to big money donors than the "Mr and Mrs John Smith E-Book Download Section of the Library Website". It's time to have a discussion about what we want our libraries to be in the Digital Age--a discussion they could have had in Appleton had the project gone up for referendum as some aldermen wanted. Otherwise, we will likely end up with monuments to old and expensive ways to do things--sort of like the Post Office.