Gen X and the Future of Libraries

Gen X and the Future of Libraries

Gen X and the Future of Libraries

I think it was Generation X that provoked the extended riff by the circulation clerk at my local library. As she ran the book and a couple Beatles re-mastered CDs through the barcode reader for me, she asked, “If we didn’t already have libraries, do you think we would invent them?” 

She proceeded to suggest her own answers along the lines that Gen Xers take everything for granted and one of those things is public lending libraries. Isn’t it highly improbable that our society would today create something as pinko and weird as a lending library, she asked. Today’s mantras being individualism, personal responsibility and for-profit models.

True, I thought. If libraries didn’t exist and someone proposed such an invention, can you imagine the outcry on online forums? Josephine Voter (JoVo in her online identity) would hammer out a protest so fast her fingers would hurt: “We are going to buy books and Blu-ray disks and stuff, with my tax money, and lend it out for free?  And pay more taxes to staff the place? Uh uh.” Or something more vitriolic. With six typos.

So it was that I left with new books and new questions. As it turned out, simply checking out Generation X didn’t help. Nineteen years after its publication (reader’s advisory to Douglas Coupland, please avert your eyes), I still haven’t read it. Six other books under my wing, you see, and my computer crashed that week and soon I was on an extended trip out of town.

I would think, though, that Gen Xers (or Ys or Millennials for that matter) don’t have any monopoly on taking things for granted.

Today I’m in a different city, reading Stephen King’s On Writing. A public library copy, of course. King, whose novels suggest a man intimate with the many ways in which hell could be interesting, writes “If I have to spend time in purgatory before going to one place or another, I guess I’ll be all right as long as there’s a lending library (if there is it’s probably stocked with nothing but novels by Danielle Steel and Chicken Soup books, ha-ha, joke’s on you Steve).”

I’m with Steve. In my early adult years, I bought a lot of books but soon discovered that my children couldn’t eat them. I learned to limit my purchases to “highlighter” books – ones that I know are going to get marked up, taken to a mountaintop or two, lent to friends and generally used within an inch of their lives.

Libraries make knowledge affordable – for me, for you. For everyone. They are here thanks to our public-spirited parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and Benjamin Franklin. Franklin and others started the first North American libraries as book lending clubs and co-ops. In the 1700s and 1800s, libraries were powered by an exciting concept called democracy. If every adult wields a vote, the thinking went, we better do something to spread knowledge and wisdom. No more keeping it all in the castles and cathedrals.

Which brings to mind last summer and a month I spent amid the ragged round-the-clock ringing of cathedral bells while writing and mangling Spanish in the central Mexican city of San Miguel de Allende. I was in my element, which by definition includes a great library.

In SMA, the public library is a relatively recent creation with a treasured role in community life.  In the mid-1950s a small Spanish and English lending library was launched from a resident’s home with donated books.  It has since reclaimed a colonial era building that previously served as a church annex and slaughterhouse. A place of prayers and death: Mexican history is always intriguing.

Last summer, I not only browsed their collection but sipped cappuccinos in the sun-drenched courtyard, caught a flick in the library’s dark, deep little movie hall, bought an anthology of local writers at a shop run by volunteers and signed up for a tour of local homes and gardens. La Biblioteca also publishes the city’s weekly community paper and, perhaps most importantly, funds scholarships for kids who couldn’t otherwise access education.

In my life and the lives of others, libraries are about much more than inexpensive borrowing. Yet the question remains. Would we citizens of the 21st century invent public libraries if they didn’t already exist? Will we even make the effort to keep our current libraries ticking?

The same techno wave that is challenging printed newspapers, magazines and books is poised over libraries. Google, e-books and online downloading are growing exponentially. Many libraries are trying to keep up and online visits are beginning to rival in-person visits.  But what is the future for digital access? It is not likely to consist of thousands of small town libraries each trying to create unique portals to the same knowledge base.

“Libraries are only taking up valuable real estate after all,” writes Michael Elcock in a recent edition of BC Bookworld. “Who will need downtown libraries when the world’s intellectual works are available in everyone’s home? Eventually we may need only one library… and that may be Google.”  As Elcock points out, “Google may be many things, but philanthropic is not one of them.”

Take a look at your public lending library and decide: is a future without it OK with you? While you’re answering that, I’m going put a new reserve on Generation X. I must get it read before a 20th anniversary commemorative edition comes out.

PS: this blog was recently posted on Life As A Human – thanks to the many librarians and readers who have replied with email and posted comments!

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