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Do We Really Need Libraries?

Bedford Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library — a gift from Andrew Carnegie, 1905.

In New York City, supporters of public libraries say that respect for — and repair of — the libraries is long, well, overdue.

A new campaign, Invest in Libraries, puts forth that in the past 10 years, the city government has reduced funding for public libraries by nearly 20 percent and 1,000 workers or so have been trimmed from the payroll. The campaign calls on the city to increase its support in various ways, such as restoring $65 million in operating funds.

The New York Times reports that "the city's three public library systems — the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library and the Queens Library — are seeking $1.4 billion in city funds over the next decade to bring all 217 public library branches up to modern building standards."

Notable, really, because last week marked the 114th anniversary of steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie's gift of 60 library branch buildings to the New York Public Library. The library recently mounted an exhibit showcasing Carnegie's largesse that will be up through May 10.

Carnegie's generosity, says Tony Marx, president of the New York Public Library, "allowed a public library in almost every neighborhood; a safe, oasis where people could learn, improve themselves, and by extension, improve their communities. That grand tradition continues today."

For more than 100 years, Marx says, "public libraries in this country have provided all members of the public with free access ... coveted access, to knowledge, information, and opportunity. Public libraries evened the playing field for all."

All in all, Carnegie — in Johnny Appleseed fashion — planted 1,679 library buildings in communities throughout the nation between 1886 and 1919, according to the National Park Service. From Caribou, Maine, to Clarksdale, Miss; from Honolulu to Miles City, Mont.

Many of the structures are grandiloquent cathedrals — edification edifices, little Louvres for the intellect — designed to send the message: Learning is everlasting.

They also gave us the sense that we lived in the United Smarts of America.

Carnegie paid for the construction; the community was charged with providing upkeep and operating costs. Eventually, some of the buildings became obsolete and were repurposed or demolished. Some are still living, breathing libraries.

But with a world of information at our fingertips — virtually anytime, anywhere — do we still need physical book-and-mortar libraries? After all, as New York City is reminding us, upkeep and operation costs can be expensive. And as a 1983 British conference on libraries observed, "We are a long way off producing true cost benefit data where you can assign a credible cash figure to the value of using any type of library."

The proceedings of the 1983 conference, by the way, were titled: "Do We Really Need Libraries?"

The answer seems self-evident. We are asking the same question more than 30 years later and many libraries are teeming with people. As the British study pointed out, there is a lot of opportunity when reckoning with naysayers "for developing costs per benefits but we do need to spend more time establishing exactly what these benefits are."

What are the benefits of libraries in this day and age?

Like a good librarian, Tony Marx of the New York Public Library has some answers. Today's libraries still lend books, he says. But they also provide other services to communities, such as free access to computers and Wi-Fi, story times to children, language classes to immigrants and technology training to everyone.

"Public libraries are arguably more important today than ever before," Marx says. "Their mission is still the same — to provide free access to information to all people. The way people access information has changed, but they still need the information to succeed, and libraries are providing that."

Or as Andrew Carnegie said many years ago: "A library outranks any other thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert."

Besides, Story Hour online just wouldn't be the same.


Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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