Libraries have undergone vast changes throughout history due to innovations in technology and the internet. Libraries have adapted to and embraced new technologies to support communities, while also continuing to provide what we might call more traditional services.
Christian Lauersen, a director of libraries and citizen services, explains that libraries have been around for thousands of years, and have always been “associated with spaces for learning, education, research, and cultural identity.” Given this association it is easy to see why library advocate Susan Orleans recently wrote about public libraries as a type of university because they offer classes on technology use, exam preparation, the ability to learn new languages, and develop literacies.
Although libraries might have historically operated in a more passive manner despite the resources and services offered, they have moved away from being a passive environment, to a more active one. In doing so, libraries still maintain a trusted and reliable brand to the communities they support. Sociologist Eric Klinenberg writes that libraries are a “social infrastructure” which engages our communities and supports learning from one another. It is human nature to want to connect to others. Day-to-day interactions between professional staff and those they support inform and shape current and future library services.
Still, we have heard off and on for years that no one needs to come to a library anymore – everything is on the internet! There is much research available in the areas of media literacy, information literacy, web literacy, digital literacy, anthropology, sociology, and history which tells us that that line of thinking misses some important points; not the least of which is the physical space available to people and communities, or as Klinenberg calls it, the social infrastructure.
So why does the physical space remain important? Why can’t students, faculty, staff and community simply email their library staff, rather than see them in person? Yes, books and print will continue to be important, but technology has allowed libraries to change their service model to continue to meet the needs of its community. Space design is crucial in developing learning environments that are conducive to individual and collaborative work. Physical spaces allow for social and academic engagement that leads to continued education. Librarians are partners in education, and as educators, they help people navigate the vast amounts of information they encounter in their daily lives. We are now living in an age of information overload where media literacy, information literacy and digital literacy are crucial as we are inundated with information (not knowing what is true and what isn’t). The need to develop these literacy skills, in addition to our inherent nature to collaborate and learn from one another, is important to community and educational success.
I have been lucky enough to meet with library staff and visit some of the public libraries in the district served by Waubonsee Community College. I am always impressed by the caring, welcoming staff, in addition to the creative and engaging services offered. September is National Literacy Month. I encourage everyone to take some time in September to visit your local library and see how you can both take advantage of and contribute to the social infrastructure that is your local library.