What is a Library?

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What do you envision when you hear the word “library”? Maybe your mind conjures up images of shelving stacks and row after row of books. Or maybe your imagination sees a cavernous, old building with wooden tables and librarians who “shush” noisy patrons. These images are what many people, including myself, see when they refer back to the library of their childhood. While these memories are valid and still describe, in part, what many libraries can be, they no longer give the full description of the services a modern library provides.

Webster’s Dictionary definition of the term “library” reads, “…a place in which literary and artistic materials, as books, periodicals, newspapers, pamphlets and prints are kept for reference or reading”. If Daniel Webster were alive today he would be shocked to witness the actual use of such a facility. His strict definition no longer applies. Yes, library buildings are still repositories of print materials. However, over the course of the past several years, they have become so much more!

In many communities, including our own, there are very few free meeting places. Library buildings can provide that space. Non-profit groups benefit from the use of these areas. Friends and neighbors will often encounter each other and sit down to chat. In the wintertime these public buildings provide warmth and respite from the cold to the less fortunate members of our society. Likewise in the summer, the reverse applies. With the onslaught of government fund cutbacks and downsizing, libraries have become a partner (and sometimes a replacement) to many social services. Services such as registering voters and helping patrons to select a government exchange insurance plan are expected duties.

Technology has become a large portion of who we are and what we provide. For example, many businesses expect to receive digital copies of resumes and schools want students to complete scholarship applications online. This can create problems, since portions of Appalachian America still exist without a computer in every household. Thankfully, modern libraries have banks of computers for patrons to use. And friendly clerks do their best to help each patron, as time permits. Many patrons also benefit from using free Wi-Fi inside library facilities. It’s not uncommon to see five to ten individuals sitting in the library working on laptops. Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, has also escalated demand for public Internet.

The modern library provides “business center” services, such as faxing, copying and word-processing. Along with all of this, improved interlibrary loan services have made it possible to request materials from all across the United States. Our local library system is part of a large sharing consortium which allows us to borrow items from remote locations, typically in less than a week! Adapting to changing patron requests is part of who we are and what we do.

*Originally published in The Daily Jeffersonian, fall 2013