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TRENDING | As public libraries strive to remain relevant, a renewed focus on Andrew Carnegie’s legacy may be just what we need

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Economist Thomas Sowell often tells of the time when his friend Eddie took him to a building filled with books when he was 9 years old. He knew his poor family couldn’t afford such books, and he didn’t really understand why he was there. “And Eddie very patiently explains to me—several times—how a library works,” Sowell told journalist Neomi Rao. “And that was a turning point in my life.”

That story likely would have delighted steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. The roots of the ubiquitous public library trace back to Allegheny City, Pa., in 1853. That’s where and when 17-year-old Carnegie was working in a telegraph office. He wanted to use the local library to better himself, but he couldn’t afford the library’s $2 subscription fee. When the librarian refused him access, Carnegie sent a letter to The Pittsburgh Dispatch. The ploy worked: The librarian opened up the library to Carnegie without a fee.

Years later Carnegie, by then a business titan, became the richest man in the world when he sold Carnegie Steel to J.P. Morgan in 1901. He then began a new career of giving away much of his wealth, including tens of millions of ­dollars to establish 1,689 public lending libraries—with no subscription fees—in towns across America.

Many of those old Carnegie libraries—or their successors—still exist, but new technologies and Americans’ changing habits are redefining libraries and presenting challenges to Carnegie’s vision of the public library as a place where anyone of any class could enhance his or her education. That raises a question: What should the library of the 21st century be?

Patrons read inside the main branch of the New York Public Library.

Patrons read inside the main branch of the New York Public Library. Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Americans told Gallup in a 2019 poll that they go to libraries more often than they go to movie theaters, sporting events, museums, or zoos. But attendance is still down, falling 21 percent from 2009 to 2019, according to Statista. Some libraries have responded by expanding their mission—trying to become everything to everybody. CBS Sunday Morning profiled a library in Kanawha County, W.Va., that underwent a $32 million renovation in 2022 and now has a podcast booth, a room for lending out hardware tools, and augmented reality screens.

Such makeovers may be extreme examples now (though they’re dubbed the libraries of the future), but many other libraries across the country have also added to their core function of providing reading material to patrons. Stations and screens for video games, for instance, are now typical in public libraries.

But a dive into the data shows that libraries may not have to go to these lengths to attract patrons. It turns out falling attendance at libraries has coincided with the rise of the smartphone. One result is that people don’t have to go to a library to use a library’s resources. Nine in 10 Americans now have a smartphone, according to Pew Research, including 97 percent of Americans between ages 18 and 29. And according to the digital content service OverDrive, library users worldwide checked out 662 million e-books, audiobooks, and digital magazines in 2023. That’s a 19 percent jump over the previous year.

This trend has a downside for libraries: cost. Counterintuitively, an e-book can cost libraries more than twice as much as a physical book. And even with the higher cost, the library doesn’t actually own the e-book, only the right to offer it to patrons for one or two years or for a specified number of checkouts. By contrast, when a library buys a physical copy of a book, it owns the book for as long as it wants the title in its stacks.

Instead of trying to become hubs for community entertainment, libraries could spend more of their limited resources on books—both print and digital.

Keeping enough e-books and audiobooks on hand is a real problem for libraries. For instance, West Haven Library in Connecticut leased 276 e-books for more than $12,000 over the last three years—the same price as 800 paper books and a big cost for a small library. The leases for 84 of those books have expired. Libraries Online Inc., an interlibrary consortium in Connecticut, spends 20 percent of its budget on replacing expired titles.

Legislators in several states have responded by proposing bills to force a better arrangement for libraries. But publishers make the compelling argument that authors deserve to get paid for their work. Shelley Husband of the Association of American Publishers acknowledged the difficulties for libraries but told the Associated Press that “the answer is not to take it out of the pockets of authors and destroy the rights of creators and pass unconstitutional legislation.” A judge in 2022 sided with publishers in a Maryland case, ruling that federal copyright laws protect them.

The solution, some argue, lies in a refocus on the library’s primary mission. Instead of trying to become hubs for community entertainment, libraries could spend more of their limited resources on books—both print and digital. Book industry veteran Tim Coates makes this case in Publisher’s Weekly, pointing to “no shortage of research suggesting that what the public values most from their public libraries is access to books, in all formats, and a place to read or work in quiet, comfortable, safe surroundings.”

It was library books, after all, that changed young Thomas Sowell’s life—not video games. Will the next Sowell find enough books when he makes his way to a public library, or will he find distractions?

Timothy Lamer

Tim is editor-at-large for WORLD News Group. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Weekly Standard.


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