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Thoughts After Dark answers the questions you have in the final moments before drifting off to sleep when a simple Google search turns into an hour-long exploration into how things are made and how they work. Your random late-night questions are answered here — even the ones you didn’t know you had.
When I was younger, I was thrilled when I finally got my own library card. I was inspired by the many treks the title character in Matilda took to her local library to check out classics like Oliver Twist and Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
I grew up in the late ’90s, which means I had both the experience of checking out DVDs from my community library and renting them from Blockbuster and Netflix — back when they used to send you the discs in the mail that you almost always forgot to return. But it was always more special to visit the library to check out a new Mary-Kate and Ashley movie because I also got to choose a new book.
While I wasn’t reading jane eyre in first grade, I was a fierce reader. I remember trying to teach my younger brother to read and being unsuccessful because I just didn’t understand how have i didn’t understand how to read But even he enjoyed going to the library, albeit for the toy trains in the designated children’s corner.
Now that I’m an adult with my own car and time, I don’t visit the library much. Actually, I haven’t been to one since 2020. I also don’t have a library card. While I’m still an avid reader, I love owning my books and placing them on my overstacked bookshelf once I’ve finished reading. Most of my friends own Kindles for convenience and rave about their “travelability.”
I recently read a statistic from the Bureau of Labor that claimed that library workers expect a 9% job growth over the next 10 years. But if most of the people I know, including myself, rarely visit the library anymore, where is this growth coming from? And will libraries always exist?
A Page-turning Library History
Before the invention of search engines like Google or columns like Thoughts After Dark, the most popular place to find the answer to any question was the local library. And while libraries still exist around the world today, most people type a question into their phone before asking a librarian to point them in the right direction.
For many historians, the creation of libraries marks the beginning of recorded human history. This is especially true once civilizations began to develop paper and needed a place to store important scrolls and government documents.
The first systematically organized library dates back to the ancient Middle East and was built in Iraq by Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal. This library held over 30,000 tablets organized by topic on a variety of scholarly ideas as well as literature. Because Ashurbanipal was extremely protective of his bookhouse, he warned that thieves would “face the wrath of the gods.”
The main goal of ancient libraries was to collect shareable knowledge that would help make life better. Advancements in architecture, agriculture, and medicine all benefited from these vast hubs of knowledge. Of the many great, ancient libraries, the Library of Alexandria in Egypt is thought to be the most extensive—with some 700,000 documents from all over the world.
Libraries Open to the Public
While libraries were once exclusively for the greats, such as kings and emperors, this changed during the Renaissance when a new movement to transform society rose. Many wished to return to the values of the Roman Empire and turned to shared knowledge stored in libraries to do so. Other moments in history also disrupted libraries, such as Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment agenda of Emperor Joseph II in Austria.
In the 1800s, libraries across the US and Europe were eventually opened to the public, but many required payment to enter. Today, libraries remain useful and popular because people enjoy the atmosphere and, surprisingly, not everything can be found on the internet. Librarians also continue to serve a very important function: to foster literacy and learning.
Will Libraries Survive the Digital Age?
As the popularity of the internet began to rise, many considered this the end of libraries. Isn’t the World Wide Web technically a library without any walls or transportation required? And while the internet is a fierce competitor, throughout history libraries have continually adapted to the new needs of society as values changed.
For example, libraries today have new designs that include computers, coffee shops, and even learning centers. Where libraries were once for “powerful” people such as kings and emperors, they’ve become a communal space for learning for all.
While our reading habits may have changed, our desire for shared and safe community spaces to both find information and connect remains. Libraries are no longer just a place for books and other media, but “places where people can experiment and create,” according to Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association in Chicago.
Libraries and Accessibility
It’s important to also note the connection between libraries and accessibility, as not everyone has access to information at their fingertips. Over 22% of US households don’t have home internet. The majority of Americans without access are minorities and the elderly.
Libraries provide internet access, handheld resources, and expert help. They are a free resource and space for many without internet access to find the answer to a question, connect with family across the world, or even fill out an online job application.
For those that do have internet access but don’t feel comfortable visiting a library in person for health reasons or otherwise, many libraries have created digital services to lend out books and movies, and resources such as “Ask a Librarian.”
Libraries have often filled gaps in necessary services throughout history. In times of crisis, libraries have stepped up. People without jobs sometimes turn to librarians for job council — 73% of libraries in the US help patrons with job applications — while in 2005 libraries allowed those impacted by Hurricane Katrina to communicate with relatives.
The Future of Libraries is Artificial Intelligence
Over the last few years, libraries have changed drastically. Because libraries were forced to shut their doors during the COVID-19 pandemic, the shift to creating online resources accelerated. But this shift was already happening: from 2014 to 2018, library spending on digital services increased by 31% while spending on physical materials decreased by 6%.
As the needs of society continue to change, so does the purpose of libraries. Not only do libraries offer digital services, but they are also implementing technology that improves user experience and makes it easier to check out materials. This includes one digital space that allows users to see what’s available at the library and request a copy if the library doesn’t already have it on hand.
Libraries, like many other industries, are also starting to automate and utilize artificial intelligence (AI). Because automation can free librarians of tedious behind-the-scenes tasks such as indexing, they have more time to interact with visitors. In libraries, AI is also being used to more quickly process documents and summarize content.
The right digital shift will, literally, keep libraries on the map instead of in history books.
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