Congratulations to Adrianne DeWeese, recipient of the 2015 UMKC Friends of the Library Annual Scholarship! Below is Adrianne's winning essay:
How do you envision the future of the libraries?
The future of libraries comes down to the concept of attitude. If we take the attitude that libraries will serve a meaningful purpose and function in our future, they will. At first glance, it seems overly simplistic, but in some regards, it is already being done. Still, there is much work to be done. But libraries are no different from any other organization that wants to see its livelihood continue for years ahead, just as they have in the past.
Libraries aren’t just about books. They are knowledge-sharing centers. They are community-gathering spaces. They are about growing and improving, and as such, they must continue to do so themselves. English author Neil Gaiman described libraries as great information centers in an October 2013 op-ed piece in The Guardian (UK). Libraries, Gaiman wrote, are places of great freedom: “Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information. I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.”
There seems to be a greater misunderstanding about libraries in society. People are still using libraries; they are just using them differently than in the past. Libraries aren’t dead, or even dying. Anybody, at any time, can declare that a historic entity like libraries or the press are dying or are already dead. With that attitude, of course something becomes no longer alive, no longer serving its once-important purpose. But libraries still have a purpose, now likely more than ever. What the public needs is a greater awareness of the two specific challenges – or rather, opportunities for growth – facing libraries. The demands of technology and adequate funding serve as the two challenges for today’s libraries, according to the Public Library Association. But libraries aren’t unique in coming up against these factors – and they aren’t that far behind in seeing solutions come to fruition.
As a child, I first learned about several new technologies through libraries. I saw my first fax machine in a library during a live conference call chat with children’s author Marc Brown. In 1998, I had my first interaction with email in my middle school library when my teacher, my classmates and I emailed a fellow classmate who had recently moved away. Libraries continue to introduce the community to new technologies, as demonstrated by a headline in the Washington Post in August 2013: “Need to use a 3-D printer? Try your local library.” One library manager in Washington, D.C., described his library’s 3-D printers as the “rock star” of the space, with two to three introductory programs taking place each day and patrons learning applicable hands-on math, engineering and science skills.
Many businesses struggled during the Great Recession, but at least one Kansas City area library system saw increased foot traffic because of the economic downturn. As a reporter for the Independence Examiner (MO) from November 2008 to April 2013, I often kept my ears and eyes open for stories of how the recession affected local businesses and organizations. One story line that often pulled me in was the economy's impact on the local library system. The Mid-Continent Public Library system saw its patron visits increase by 7.2 percent, from more than 4.36 million in fiscal year 2007-08 to more than 4.67 million in fiscal year 2008-09, according to my original reporting in January 2012. Patrons especially relied upon computers for their job searches, with library staff sometimes helping those out of work set up email accounts and learn the basic functions of the Microsoft Office Suite since, for some, it was the first time they had to search for work in decades. Mid-Continent Public Library also saw an increase in circulation, showing that patrons relied upon at-no-cost items for entertainment and education when they were tightening their own household budgets.
Like any complex problem, one simple solution isn’t available for preserving the future of libraries. It also isn’t an opportunity that will right itself in one day or even one year. Every patron plays a role in ensuring libraries will remain a fabric of communities for decades to come. On March 18, more than 100 Missouri teenagers showed their role in the fight as they traveled to Jefferson City on their Spring Break and rallied to save Missouri libraries. Patrons of all ages who speak up about the importance of libraries in their own lives place pressure on political leaders to ensure that state funding remains in place.
Library advocacy is simpler. Patrons can continue to check out books and DVDs on a weekly basis. They can attend often-free classes on everything from knitting to tax preparation. They can enroll their children in literacy workshops and the always-popular Summer Reading Program. And, when the day comes that their library purchases its first 3-D printer, they can show up with eager eyes and ask the important question, “How does it work?”
Like anything worth preserving, the opportunity exists for each person to prove the value of libraries in showing up one at a time. We have more access to information now than at any other time in human history – and that is only going to keep growing over time. It is this wealth of information, of knowledge, that should give communities optimism to keep their libraries relevant for years. They have survived for centuries to date so far – the 21st century serves as the chance for their place to be permanently cemented into history.