By Madina Safdari
Tucked away on a street corner, residential alcove, or another inconspicuous location stands a Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL). Though its facade may be dull and easy to miss, the public library provides a vibrant beacon of opportunity to all communities.
Public libraries have a promising future, and their potential can be understood by looking at their origins. According to the Digital Public Library of America, once the printing press was invented, copies of books were mass produced. Then, fueled by Enlightenment ideals of inquiry and reason, people searched for places where they could have conversations about art and literature.
Though in the beginning, these places included private libraries which were restricted by membership, modern public libraries are pushed by the desire to share knowledge for free. Today, less than 20 membership libraries exist in the U.S., while there are 119,487 public libraries according to the American Library Association.
Modern libraries provide more than just book-borrowing and printers. They also serve disadvantaged communities by offering free services that help mobilize them in their education or employment. For instance, the homeless population frequents libraries because they offer free computer use and internet access. Free internet access is often used to find work, apply to college, secure government benefits and learn about critical medical treatments according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
Many libraries also provide free English language classes for those who are second language learners. They may also offer book clubs, reading to children, volunteer opportunities for teens, tutoring, job-readiness classes and more.
Though the list of services public libraries offer can go on for ages depending on the location, libraries are decreasing in popularity. According to a Pew Research study, 76 percent of Americans say that libraries serve the needs of their community; however, 12 months prior to that survey, only 44 percent of Americans visited a local library or mobile library.
Pew Research suggests that the decline in visits to public libraries can be attributed to the rise of digital technology and the prominence of e-books. However, according in an article in The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer argues that technology is not to blame for the downturn in public library visits. Meyer contends that if public libraries received more funding, more people would use them. IMLS provides empirical evidence that shows a strong correlation between investment and usage. Meyer affirms that when libraries are well funded they can increase their staff, provide more classes, and stay open for longer hours. However, according to IMLS, libraries have been receiving less funding since 2009.
Libraries are often overlooked for their impact in creating healthy communities. However, they are extremely important as being one of the last public spaces where all people are welcome and can leave their wallet at home. Public libraries attempt to level the playing field for disadvantaged groups while still being accessible for all. Until we all take advantage of and appreciate the services public libraries provide, they will likely become obsolete.