Why we still need libraries

Under the weight of fake news, writer Susan Orlean looks at how US libraries remain at the heart of their community.
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Writer Susan Orlean. Image supplied.

‘Destroying libraries and burning books speaks to our impermanence. Libraries are eternal. I think we all feel on some level that they’ll be there ad infinitum, so to destroy them is to say, “You’ll be next,”’ Susan Orlean told a Sydney Writers Festival crowd last week.

Orlean was speaking about her book, The Library, that ostensibly tries to discover how Los Angeles Public Library burnt down in 1986 but along the way, her wandering New Yorker-style prose ends up being a meditation on what libraries mean to us and the wound they leave when they’re destroyed.

Almost six years in the writing, Orleans spent time in the library itself from the reference desks to the shipping department to the city librarian’s office. Far from a fusty culture she found a vital organisation that traded in more than books.

Are libraries under threat?

In theory the internet and Amazon should have made libraries redundant. They promise all of the information delivered to your screen or door, but Orleans points to the way libraries were early adopters of the tech that threatened them. ‘We’ve been living with that [the internet] for 20 years. Libraries didn’t set themselves up in opposition … They partnered with technology and decided to not become a museum of books,’ Orlean said.

Libraries have become community hubs – bringing in new services like internet access or children’s reading hours. Orlean talked about a time when children were not allowed to visit libraries – an oddity in an age when kids make up so much of a public library’s core business. In Australia, the creation of Trove – an online database for all Australian libraries that holds digitised versions of books – has become the exemplar for libraries building new audiences online.

The changing role of libraries is not without growing pains for some patrons. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Mandy Sayer yearns for the days of ‘quiet please’ and laments that libraries have less to do with books. Sayer writes, ‘In the past forty years, the role of libraries has progressed so much that they now provide services such as toddler reading hours, 3D printers, community events, author talks, and free internet connections, while the main service desks once staffed by librarians have vanished, along with their authority, and those old inky, purple “Due Date” stamps.’

But for Orlean this bringing together of community is one of the virtues of libraries. ‘They are one of the few institutions in society that are inclusive… and most people celebrate this,’ she said.

In The Library, Orlean cites programs in Atlanta and Los Angeles where libraries are used to support the homeless. In LA when laws were changed to remove homeless people from the streets, Orlean tells of how the city librarian looked at how their institutions could create bigger spaces for homeless people to store their bedding and backpacks.

Communist organisations?

When asked if libraries were communist institutions, Orlean didn’t miss a beat in agreeing that they certainly were. ‘We would lose something amazing with libraries – a sense of community,’ Orlean said. Libraries represent work spaces for both Orlean and Sayer, though Orlean enjoys the way libraries enable people to get out of the house and work as freelancers in a public space.

Many writers park their laptops in cafes for that same experience of a place to work that has people buzzing around them. What makes libraries different from your local café? Orlean said, ‘There is no commerce associated with the library. They are free and available to everyone. That is different to Starbucks. They are a parallel version of that because people like to get out of their homes.’

In Trump’s America, libraries would seem like natural targets for anyone wanting to reduce information. But Orlean points out that public libraries have survived because they are often local and so duck the attention of the President. ‘Libraries are primarily funded through local initiatives like land tax so Trump can say what he wants but he can’t affect them.’

Orlean’s session wrapped up with questions and when one began with ‘More of a comment than a question …’ there was an audible groan from the festival crowd. But the final word was from a librarian who teetered on the verge of tears as she told Orlean: ‘Thanks for giving words to what so many of us who work in libraries feel.’ It’s not often you hear such a glowing book review from one of your subjects.

George Dunford
About the Author
George Dunford is Content Director at ArtsHub and Screenhub. He has written for Meanjin, The Big Issue, Lonely Planet, The Good Food Guide and others. He has worked in digital leadership roles in the cultural sector for more than 10 years including at the National Library of Australia, National Museum of Australia and the Wheeler Centre. Twitter: @Hack_packer Instagram: george.dunford LinkedIn: george-dunford