What I Told the American Library Association

I recently had the privilege of addressing the American Library Association‘s “Summit on the Future of Libraries” at the Library of Congress in Washington. I was mostly there to give a talk about Think Like a Freak, but I took advantage of the setting to speak about libraries as well. Here is some of what I said:

I know you didn’t invite me here to tell you how much I love libraries … but I’m going to do it anyway.

Without the public library in the town in upstate New York where I grew up, I probably wouldn’t be standing here today. Not that I wouldn’t be alive – even I don’t think libraries are that powerful – but I don’t know if I would have become a writer.

It was in that library that I learned to read. It was in that library that I learned to write. It was in that library that I learned to do research. My first research project was a historical essay about a little overgrown Quaker cemetery up on a hill behind our house, a cemetery that nobody alive knew anything about – but the library did.

This town was called Quaker Street — a town so small that it was named not after some prominent citizen (of which there were none), or some prominent industry (of which there were none), but for the road that ran through town: Quaker Street.

Most of the towns up there weren’t much bigger. And when I was about 9 or 10 years old, I noticed something about all these towns. Not all of them had a general store. Not all of them had a diner. But they all had a library! This persuaded me – rightly or wrongly – that you absolutely couldn’t survive without a library. The only other thing that every town had was a firehouse.

Now, interestingly, technology has made the firehouse much less necessary than it was in the past. We figured out how to build houses and buildings that rarely burn down; it helps that we don’t use live flame for lighting or cooking or heat. Over the past 100 years, death by fire in the U.S. has fallen about 90 percent! That’s an astonishing improvement — the kind of improvement, however, that society kind of yawns at while finding something new to complain about.

So technology has almost made the firehouse obsolete. And what about the library? Here’s one number to consider: in New York City, where I live, the 206 public library branches in one year receive about 40 million visitors – which, quoting a report by the Center for an Urban Future, is “more than all of the city’s professional sports teams and major cultural institutions combined.” I have to admit, when I first read that number, I couldn’t believe it. More library visitors than all those places combined. And so I started checking the math. The Metropolitan Museum? Six million visitors. The New York Yankees? In a good year, four million. The New York Mets? Okay, that’s just a rounding error. But 40 million visitors to New York’s public libraries!

And what are they doing there? Well, as you all know much better than I, they’re doing a lot of things. Not just checking out books, or reading newspapers. The public library  has become a different sort of institution – with a new set of opportunities and a new set of challenges. School and university libraries too: their mission has changed, perhaps not as much as the public library’s mission, but it’s changed. In all cases, the library has become, more than  when I was a kid, a sort of public square. The library is where we meet, where we mix, where we consume and produce whatever we need to consume and produce at our given point in civilization. And for that I – and 40 million other people in New York – are grateful. Even if you never step foot in a library, there is reason to be grateful for this institution.

Now, interestingly – to me at least – there is nothing about the library’s continuing strength that was foreordained. Like a lot of institutions, it is to a  degree the product of an accident of history. If a relatively small group of people hadn’t decided, many years ago, that the public library was an institution that deserved funding, and tending, and recognition, would we still have them? If, that is, the library were an idea that were proposed anew today, would it come into existence? I’m not so sure. Can you imagine the conversation with the publishers? Yes, we’d like to buy one copy of your book and then let 1,000 people read it, for free. Ha! All books would come equipped with some self-destruction device that would blow it up after five readings.

Thanks to the A.L.A. for having me.

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  1. Amy Alkon says:

    Wonderful post. I probably wouldn’t be alive if not for the Farmington Hills, Michigan, public library, and the librarians, who just smiled as I took home laundry baskets full of books. I had no friends as a child and books — taken out through the library — showed me that there was more beyond my small, miserable life. Now, I’m an author (with my third book coming out in three weeks), and I, likewise, don’t think I’d be writing for a living but for the joy I got from books from the time my life was awful — and the joy I get now, having just reread Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” this weekend.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0
    • Mary D. says:

      Due to your posting about this article I just checked my library’s catalog, found one of your books and requested it from another branch!

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  2. Reedo says:

    “All books would come equipped with some self-destruction device that would blow it up after five readings.”

    I read some articles about publishers who want something similar for library e-books, which are digitally locked. Each time the e-book is unlocked and lent out, a counter increments. Once that counter exceeds the configured maximum, the e-book is meant to no longer permit any more lending…unless the library buys the e-book again to reset the counter.

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    • Jessamyn West says:

      That would be HarperCollins and I’m not sure if they’ve reconsidered.


      We’re lucky that libraries became an institutionalized part of the American fabric early on. Thanks for your supportive words.

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    • Megan England says:

      Yep, this is the case for some publishers. I just put together a cart of eBooks for my library’s teen eBook collection and many were restricted to either 26 total checkouts, or metered use (you own it for 12 or 24 months, then it goes poof). I’m 100% fine with the 26 checkout rule. If a physical book circulated 26 times, it would be pretty nasty and falling apart, likely to get replaced anyway. The metered use really annoys me, though.

      It’s an exciting time to be a librarian, with the way services are growing, changing, and diversifying. I appreciate support like this, and wish that THIS were the dominant voice. Every time I see another “Are libraries obsolete?” article, I want to scream! We need to look into ways to better market our services so that we never have to deal with that question again.

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      • SherriLibrarian says:

        Yes, publishers are restricting checkouts to ebooks. I disagree that 26 checkouts would require replacement of a physical book. I’ve seen many books checked out more than 30 times that still are in decent shape.

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      • Blue says:

        Library books can circulate dozens if not hundreds of times before they need to be replaced. Check out this video from Pioneer Library in Norman, OK – one of their examples was checked out 120 times and was still only slightly damaged: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Je90XRRrruM

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  3. carlosmx37 says:

    In mexico city downtown,,and Guadalajara, many natives are grateful to the American Embassy sponsored “Benjamin Franklin Library”,because it was at times the only place where you could get american newspapers and magazines,which after importing duties cost more than the minimum wage !

    many of Us,poor students at public Schools during the eighties, , got valuable info for continuing our education at the States and other countries !
    ( Benjamin Franklin Library was also the center for Toefl exams).

    All for free !

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  4. Carson Block says:

    Thanks for a most inspirational kickoff to the summit!

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  5. Mary Ann says:

    Publishers already sell books that self-destruct after 5readings. It’s called the “perfect binding”. Unfortunately the writer is correct. One only has to see the budget cuts in many cities and towns. Many of our libraries are being starved to death.

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