Is there a place for the library in the 21st Century

A trip down memory lane

As a child I loved going to the library. It gave me access to an endless supply of books, both fiction and reference materials. I loved reading and learning about new things. One of my earliest book memories is Christmas morning and opening a big present which was a Children’s Encyclopedia. I actually still own it but it was so loved and well read that now its in a very delicate state. I had one book I could devour at home, but the library was this massive room full of books where I could be lost for the day – so much choice, so much to read.  

During the week I spent all my spare time in the school library; but weekends or holidays were meant for trips to the town library. Even when my mum wanted me to go outside “to play”, the compromise was a deckchair at the front door where I would be found nose in book.

I’m not sure where or why my love of writing disappeared as a child, but I don’t remember it being encouraged very much. However, as I rediscover that passion, I find myself reminiscing about libraries and reflecting upon their importance to writers and readers. I also wonder if public libraries will survive the budget cuts being imposed by our governments and councils (I’m assuming this is not simply a feature of public sector cuts in the UK) and if they can be saved, how the libraries need to change to be relevant in the 21st century.

Libraries today

In a time when libraries, along with other public services, are finding their budgets cut, they need to consider how to pay for the services they provide. This is combined with an increasing demand for their services and facilities, with a range of factors contributing to this surge in demand:

  • People who are struggling financially are visiting libraries to use as a warm space when they can’t afford to heat their homes
  • Employees who are able to work from home but don’t have the facilities or as above, can’t heat their homes, are using library facilities to work
  • With inflation driving up costs so much, more people are using the lending facilities at a time when libraries need to consider reducing the amount of new books they buy, so reducing supply.

Recognising that many in the local communities are experiencing economic hardship, there are examples of libraries becoming a hub by running food banks, clothing collection and distribution points and over the winter months, becoming Council run warm spaces for people who can’t afford to heat their homes.  

If funding cuts are inevitable and costs increase, these two factors make it much more difficult for libraries to continue to deliver their services. I’m not sure what the answer is, certainly in the UK it would not be normal for council libraries to charge for their services. Solutions could include becoming a social/community hub and accessing other funding or council libraries could merge with schools and other educational establishments and share resources. Linked to the idea of foodbanks and warm spaces, the libraries could open up cafes within the facilities, the income from which would help support the libraries.

The Library of the Future

Despite my nostalgia for the libraries of my childhood, typically I don’t work from libraries today. We have so much information at the tap of the keyboard and although I like hard copy books, we do also have so many books available in electronic format too. Am I simply holding onto memories, or should we, should I be making more and better use of the facilities too?

The changes that are outlined above demonstrate how the libraries are changing and adapting to the needs of their communities, but to survive in the 21st Century they need to ensure they are fit for purpose. They need to be community hubs, providing a range of facilities rather than simply being a repository for books.  

To ensure survival, libraries need to become learning resource centres providing:

  • Books, including e-books
  • Access to wifi 
  • Computer access along with other electronic and digital resources
  • space for quiet work – particularly as employees are working from library facilities as well as students
  • space for group work, where they can discuss their projects etc without disturbing others
  • A community space – where perhaps community groups can hold meetings, run classes etc in the library (my local library hires out some of its rooms)
  • Cafeteria

As I was working on this post I renewed my membership to my local library online. Do we need a library today? I definitely think we do for the community, to provide a focus for communities. However, as a writer, do we need the library? I’m not sure, but I can imagine me packing a bag and finding a quiet spot surrounded by research books, notebooks and pens as I draft future blog posts. I guess the library still has a place in my heart.  

What about you? How do you feel about our libraries?


      • Haha what a funny coincidence! 😆😆
        I chose it because I like tardigrades and they’re hardy, too! Hope to see one someday…

      • They are this microscopic creatures aka moss bears/piglets. They live in moist environments. They’re “virtually indestructible” thus the hardy description. They’ll survive extreme temperatures, acidic environments, radiation, freezing, drying up (they adapt or go into a suspended state or encapsulate themselves, etc until the conditions are optimum again). They’re so cute too!

  1. I like the idea of having a cafe in the library! I don’t know about the UK, but in the US some bookstores have cafes where people can meet or just sit reading and sipping coffee. The smell of coffee adds to the ambience, too, don’t you think? 🙂

    • Yes, some bookshops are like that here too. I agree, it would draw more people into the libraries. When I was at Strathclyde Uni, there was a cafe in the Uni building and it was convenient to grab some books and head down and set up in the cafe. I’d never be out of the place.

      • Now I’ll need to go investigate the bigger ones in Glasgow 🙂 – I’ll call it a cafe hunt 🙂

      • Yes! Save the libraries! I have electronic copies of my module textbooks but I went to the hospital library to borrow the actual books because it wasn’t the same. I think it’s the sensory bit that’s missing with the electronic ones. I believe that the more of your senses you use, the better you learn. Or perhaps that’s just how I learn, lol!

      • I must admit I’ve spent quite a bit of today pouring over law textbooks – with my trusty highlight – preparing classes for next week. I still prefer the actual books

      • I actually find that frustrating lol. Well I’m headed to bed with a book and what’s left of my hot chocolate.

      • Night night, Brenda! Thank you for this stimulating discourse.

        I should hit the hay, too. Last day of toil for this week tomorrow (I hope). Early start!

      • In Southeast Michigan, some of our libraries have cafes, meeting rooms, study rooms, etc. I believe libraries are fundamental in creating a love of reading in children (reflecting on my own experience as a reader who was nurtured by my local library) and also as gathering places for adults. My local library has a genealogy room and sponsors a poetry writing group, book clubs, speaker series on topics from history to culture to gardening. (BTW, one of my book clubs recently read The Reading List about a U.K. Library–a lovely read.)

      • Thanks Madeleine. I’m glad your library is integrated so well with the local community

  2. I used to love going to the library before the internet was big! These days, I prefer their ebooks. Our libraries in Colorado keep closing due to meth use in the restrooms, which spreads through the vents, so… I don’t know what to think about THAT. Overall, though, I love libraries and hope they continue to be a safe and wonderful place for communities 😊

    • That’s a shame that the libraries are being threatened. We frequent some cafes here where you need to get a key to get access to the toilet. One of the train stations started charging to use the toilets because staff were attacked a couple of times with needles. Apparently since they introduced the charge, there haven’t been any repeats – maybe that would be a deterrent?

  3. 🙂 I have not been to an actual physical library in decades.

    In our modern era, almost everything is online.

    I do not mind reading eBooks.

    Do enjoy the rest of your day, Brenda.

  4. Educational libraries of college, university and the hospital bases were always great for research materials. Also they found literature papers too where you could pay a few pounds for a research paper needed that was behind a finance/to buy wall. I took the books home to read at leisure though. Libraries for public use were amazing places when younger. Amazon and Abebooks sell at very cheap prices with postage on top. So owning a paper copy of something interesting or that you have wanted for decades can be found easily. Google books also provide links to particular titles from other sellers. Libraries have to, as you have highlighted here, bring community values into their space with interesting additional activity offerings. Books read in groups with discussion is an amazing experience. Great post Brenda.

  5. Gosh…what a post, Brenda. Yes, yes. Our libraries are treasures…containing treasures…access to the whole universe and then some. I love hearing that you have a delicate volume from your childhood that’s precious. The love of books seems so central to my life, our daughter’s life…and today while I was out, I stopped at our local library just to say hello and see what’s new. Definitely the cornerstone of the community…and like you, I hope continued funding and support is assured. 🥰

  6. Thank you Vicki. Since I took out membership (again) I now need to visit the library (or one in Glasgow) in the next 30 days or the temporary electronic membership card I have will be invalidated.

  7. As a retired librarian, my answer is obviously going to be yes! A public library is one of the few places you can spend time without being expected to spend money. The people who say “well I haven’t used one for years ago they aren’t needed” probably can afford high-speed broadband, expensive tablets etc. Many of the articles I read saying libraries need to modernise make me shout that they’re doing all that already. Having said all that, I know Glasgow Life really struggled to reopen everything after lockdown, eg I was told up to a 1/3 of staff left, and I’m relieved they’ve managed to get back to some semblance of what they used to be.

  8. I have lived in this little community for 6 years and finally we are getting the funding for a new, bigger, location friendly county library. The city has been seeking input from the community and what we would like included- they do that for any new community project and I love that. A perk of being in a small town- you really do get a voice. I use an e-reader for books borrowed and really like the convenience. Once the new one is ready and open it will be within walking distance, and a better part of town so the e-reader may not be needed. Libraries offer much more than books, as you noted Brenda. They can be a community hub, offer classes, and my favorite- programs to engage children.

  9. In my neck of the woods in eastern Canada, our public libraries are well utilized. Our library includes all the features you mention except for a cafeteria. We donate many of our gently used books to our public library. I can’t imagine a healthy community without a healthy public library.

  10. this reminds me of my days at the library and lucky for me, we lived within walking distance. much time was spent there.

    sadly, technology may now become the new library, though the feel of a book will always be dear as opposed to that of a device.

    your passion for books and reading is wonderful, Brenda 🤍✨

    • Thanks Destiny.
      It’s funny, I was through in my living room looking for a particular book. Digging through my pile of books I came out with 4 to read immediately, but not the one I was searching for. Bought an e-book copy just because it was cheaper, but would prefer the paper copy

  11. I think libraries are awesome!

    As much as things are becoming digital, I think libraries are still important; especially here in South Africa. It gives kids, especially the less priveleged who don’t have access to wifi at home, a place to work in peace and connect to the internet to do schoolwork. It’s also a safe space for young people to just hang out and read, possibly preventing them from getting involved in illegal activities.

    Growing up, we didn’t have internet access at home so I’d go to the library to do my research for school projects.

    I think there’s definitely still space for libraries in the 21st century, especially in South Africa.

    • Thank you so much. You’re right, not everyone has Internet or WiFi access at home.
      Children need to be introduced to books from a young age and libraries are important for that too. I remember visiting my friend in France when her son was about 6. We visited the library together. They both selected books to take home. It was clearly part of their weekend routine

  12. I love hard copy too

    Nothing beats the touch of the book and Paper 😍

    It’s been forever since I visited any Library, maybe I should.

    I can donate some books there.

    But library is a place everyone should visit to know about their past.

    Yes, nowdays the book reading and library visiting is limited. People are more inclined to phone and ebooks. So it’s hard to develop that love for books.

  13. Living in a working class area I have a local library that has almost all the features Brenda suggests. The cafe is usually busy, and you normally need to book time on the computes. Many local groups use the available rooms for yoga to book groups. It was purpose built ten years ago in the hope it would become a community hub, and it has. Libraries do have a place in the future when they respond to localneeds.

  14. Interesting post. Same as you, in my city, the library is being used as a place to keep warm by those with no home. A brand new facility was just built to replace the older one. I wonder if the homeless will be allowed to linger there once the new building opens.

  15. At my local library it often looks like an escape, a place of refuge. I see many not reading a physical book, but instead reading or watching there phones.
    I guess the important thing is to have a quite place.

    • I think thats a valid point, Kevin. The world can be so busy and noisy today. A quiet escape can be a sought-after treasure

  16. Libraries where I have lived in the US are adapting to those needs. I have access to digital media and books, the main library in my town has lots of work space, several rooms that can be used for meetings, and programming directed to the community. Luckily I live in a progressive area where literacy is considered important. (p.s.–that’s a cool image for the article, isn’t it? Looks familiar to me)

  17. Growing up, Brenda, a visit to the library with my mam was the highlight of my week. I still think there is a need for libraries but their role has changed. Our local library was taken by the community from the local authority and is a hub for most things going on in our village. It provided a warm space during the past winter and has many activities for different communities. Do you remember mobile libraries? I don’t know if they still exist.

    • I think they still existed before the lockdowns. They visited my mother-in-law every 4 weeks and I suspect some of the really rural communities would still use them. However, I fear they may be at risk due to funding cuts

  18. The libraries were a magical place for me growing up and books soon became my best friends. I think there will always be a place for libraries in the world it’s just that how we read books may evolve over time. Very interesting post.

  19. We need the library. You wrote of many good reasons. All my grandchildren, we have spends hours in the library. In my area. The library is the Hub for poetry clubs, meeting and children activities. We have weak leaders. Last week, wanted to cut free lunches for the poor children and to close the libraries. I pray we vote out the paid off leaders, to allow our children and old folks_(Like me) to have a safe place to go and read the precious books.

      • In Michigan. We will be fine. We have a strong woman Governor. She had balls of steel. She will feed the poor children and keep the library open. I do love her. We need more like her.

  20. How do I feel about libraries? I wrote a post about that, Brenda.

    Because of what I wrote in my post, I seldom use our local library. I only use it to collect recycling bags. However, it does have wifi and access to desktop computers. Whenever I go in, those computers are all in use.

    The idea of having a cafe is a good one to help raise funds. Although I don’t use libraries (other than what I said), it would be a loss to the community if the local one closed. I hope it does not, although there may come a time when everyone is used to reading books on devices. When that happens, the libraries of the future will be very different.

    • Thanks Hugh. Yes, I remember reading your reasons. I agree, libraries need to adapt and change to continue to be relevant. In college we now call them learning resource centres rather than libraries because of the range of e-technologies now available

      • I hope they continue to adapt to the changes in life and living, Brenda. Things that don’t change get stale and often end up disappearing. Once my generation and the one below me have gone, I’m positive that 99% of those left will know how to work technology. And no doubt, it will also have changed by then, and we won’t be cutting down trees anymore to produce paper.

      • Very true, Hugh. Technology is always changing and advancing. It’s quite scary to look back and see the changes that have taken place even in 20 or 30 years, let alone 50 or more.

  21. I certainly hope we never lose our libraries. In our small town the library is also quite small, but we have access to borrow any book in our county through the lending system. For those without the ability to log in online, the librarians can help you locate and request the book wanted, and will call when it comes in. I am curious, though…why would a library need a cafeteria? I agree with all the other needs of a resource center…but that one stumps me. Thanks! 💞

    • When I was at one university, there was a cafe in the same building as the library. I’d locate books, check them out … work in the cafe and return the books when I was done. Saved me carting them home

      I was also thinking that a cafe might attract more people to the facility, and they might then check out the books. But i was also thinking if they’re strugglingfinancially, its also a way to generate some income

  22. Hi Brenda
    we think libraries are important not only as community hub but also for their book collections. They preserve books that otherwise would be lost. Of course, a fast internet connection is essential nowadays and a cafe would be nice but not essential. It would be great if one could read there the important international newspapers and magazines.
    Thanks and cheers
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • Thanks for contributing to the discussion. I must admit I don’t think of my local library holding records, thinking that will be in the City Centre, but now I need to explore that.

    • I guess working in education I don’t think about them, we have one in each campus. But yes, I prefer physical books

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