Why Public Libraries are the Only Thing That Matters (to me) in the Print vs Digital Debate

| February 10, 2013 | 11 Comments

I began this post nine months ago and have struggled to feel like it is finished. I now realize it will never be finished … no more than a river will be done flowing. It is about information, knowledge, curiosity and ultimately our humanity. In many ways, the cultural landscape is being transformed before our eyes. Our previous notions of publishing, authorship, literacy and even reading itself have changed substantially in just a few years. It is dramatic enough to make us tremble at what more may be to come …

In the past three years, I have been asked often about my thoughts on the ‘app revolution’ and the ‘print vs digital’ transition happening for ‘digital natives’ (i.e. kids). So much of this questioning pre-supposes a division not only between the universe of print and digital reading but also between the generational experiences and expectations of kids vs adults. It is true that every generation sees things differently with new technological advancements, but ultimately I think the relationship for kids and adults in the print vs digital landscape is actually being experienced as a much more fluid transition in the real world. The industry may be shaking in its boots, educators may be scrambling to keep up and parents may be anxious (our natural state, btw), but readers (of all ages) are simply reading and doing it digitally at a rapid pace these days.

Cen Campbell

I had an exchange recently with an inspiring librarian from Mountain View, California. Cen Campbell. Cen is on twitter as @LittleeLit and is a trail-blazer (and the best kind of fire-starter) in her profession. She is deeply committed to having an open mind to the digital shift, while also staying grounded in the deeper purpose of libraries in the larger society. We are working on several projects together, including a potential database for children’s librarians to curate apps, a book project and lots of community and professional workshops. After discussing another presentation we might do together for librarians in California, I explained the reason behind my willingness to travel, speak and participate in the dissemination of this digital knowledge, despite such limited chances of personal compensation.

My response was this:

“We own libraries collectively as a democratic society & the curation provided is essential to the ‘best practices’ of a lot of fields like education & social work. We can’t afford to ignore digital content in the one institution most ideally set up to help the rest of us navigate the next few decades …”

Cen suggested this was a ‘brilliant quote’ … but there is much more behind it for me personally. There are few things in life that matter more to me more than public libraries. In creating and promoting a review site for children’s digital literature, I am sometimes challenged by others on social media and other channels, based on an expectation that I am hostile to print. This is so untrue I hardly know where to begin. This Print Vs. Digital debate has grown very tiresome to me. I suspect many of my readers feel the same way. But there is one strand of the cultural debate that can still send me into a passion that makes getting my words down in an articulate manner difficult, precisely because I am so eager to find my voice.

I do not think much about the print vs digital debate … it’s a pointless discussion. Nothing is going to change the seismic shift caused by technological advancements and talking about ‘how books smell’ is going to seem quaint or even idiotic at some point in the not so distant future. No one alive today will go without print, surely, but it will in fact fade as a regular source of reading material. What will not fade is the need for the institutions in our communities that were built around the physical book. We’ve already felt a painful retraction in community spaces with the closing of large chain bookstores. Perhaps a temporary reprieve will give us a time where independent and used bookstores can flourish in their larger rival’s wake. I am getting rid of nearly all my print books in the midst of a family move, keeping only those with sentimental value or not easily found in a public library or digital bookstore. The space alone is hard to justify when I think of how rarely I actually read the books I owned on several shelves through our home.

But the thought of this process also stealing away from our communities the democratic space for information and welcoming community space that is the public libraries leaves me truly heart-broken. I can imagine a world without physical books, but not one without physical libraries. This may be naive of me to hope the two are not impossibly connected, but hope I will. I simply cannot imagine a world without libraries. They have defined every part of my life since I was conscious. I have had library cards in places I’ve lived as few as 6 weeks, simply because it was inconceivable to be without one. During a profoundly difficult post-partum depression I survived, I sometimes took my son everyday of the week, just for the respite and connection I felt to something outside my own situation, something better and grander. Even when I was struggling as a young social worker, the one charity I always found a way to support financially was the Seattle Public Library, an exceptional institution. Giving to the library feels almost like tithing to me.

Building Your Own Theology Courses from UUA

I participated in a religious/spiritual education course many years ago, where they asked us to look into our pockets, wallets/purses or backpacks (anything we had on us at almost all times during the day) and find the one thing that most deeply represented our core beliefs … the thing we would least be able to part with, perhaps. I was the only one in the room with a library card in hand (and a librarian was among the other participants). If I could keep nothing else, this was the one thing I knew would keep me sane. Others had pictures (those are in my head), ID, or even a credit card, cash or membership to a club they could shower and stay at … but for me, as a former social worker, I was deeply impacted by the need to stay connected to a public, social and totally welcoming space in my community.

Kings County Branch Library – Hanford, California

As a child I spent countless hours at the public library, my nerdy way to be a latch-key kid in the 1970’s. My mother’s office happened to be across the street, so I spent hours in what was to me a divine paradise full of stories. I remember being lonely when home in front of the TV, but never felt anything but possibility in the reading nooks and crannies I discovered over the years in the local public library. There were three aisles of phone books for California alone, and this was the most quiet spot in the whole building, so I often stayed up in the near-attic reference area until right before my mom would come to get me. I liked the children’s section (where I was supposed to stay), but the freedom to wander every subject I could imagine was exhilarating. The librarians seemed totally okay with a child abandoned for hours in a public library back then, too … they even seemed to enjoy me being there all the time, asking what books I’d suggest for the children’s book table near the entrance and sharing snacks with me on their breaks. I loved every minute of it. [In defense of my mother, recently divorced and setting a fine example for her daughter of feminist ideals, I lived in a very small town and my mother probably knew the librarians well. I’m quite sure they had her phone number at work on a note taped to the wall (this was before Post-it Notes after all).]

Award Winning Design for the Seattle Public Library

I also had the ‘opportunity’ to ‘be homeless’ for a day in Seattle, WA when I was a social work student. As a class assignment, in pairs, we spent the day on the streets. Looking younger than our 25 years, my friend and I were easily taken for street kids, not the more weathered homeless people that inhabit most large cities. We were even offered breakfast by another homeless person who felt protective of us and worried that we had not eaten in days. The farce was painful and instructive to endure for the day and I was grateful that it was an unusually cold night when shelters were expected to turn people away. We couldn’t in good conscience take a bed from someone truly in need, so we went home, a bit grateful and regretful simultaneously. No where that day did I feel truly safe, truly welcome and at home except for in the public library. This was long before the beautifully remodeled Downtown Seattle Library was built in 2004. In 1996, the library smelled bad, the lighting was awful and the user experience was lacking to a degree that I will leave unmentioned … yet I experienced respect and hope nonetheless. There is always a new story to read in a library, giving it a kind of electric vibe only readers can feel.

The University of Washington, School of Social Work

The experience taught me most of all how important our public institutions are … our libraries in particular. And that brings me to the book … the digital book. In many ways it saved my life. It reawakened a sense of purpose and connection to a world beyond my own family and experiences as a parent. It also gave me a true understanding of the nature of cultural sharing between generations … the picture book is sacred for this reason. It is our own childhoods as parents, relived through familiar stories and modes of storytelling. So when the mode changes, we freak out a little. [Parents are sensitive creatures and should be given a wide berth for such things.]

But with a new life so entwined with the digital book, you’d think I’m ‘rooting’ for it in the whole Print vs Digital debate. Yet I think the only thing I can really root for in general is kids learning to love reading as much as I did, no matter what the format. And I am especially hopeful that libraries, as they have with past digital technology, will find a way to grow with our culture … we may have other ways to read, but we still need a place to connect to that reading in person sometimes, especially with varying levels of technological adoption across class and other cultural lines.

Category: All About Apps, iPads in Education, Libraries and the Digital Shift

About the Author ()

Carisa Kluver is the the editor of Digital-Storytime.com, an iPad children's book review site. She has a BA in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and an MSW from the University of Washington. Before starting this project, she was a school counselor, health educator and researcher in child & maternal health.