Forbes published an article in late July arguing that libraries have lost their purpose and have become a waste of taxpayer money. As a response to public outrage after the article was published, Forbes removed it from their website. However, the author, Panos Mourdoukoutas, is not alone in his opinions. Trump’s 2019 budget proposal plans to begin closing the Institute of Museum and Library Services by cutting $208 million in federal funding. At a time when interest in libraries is low and getting lower, libraries including Marlborough’s ARC, now called the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI), are making changes to remain relevant.
Regardless of opinions about the importance of libraries, the fact is that Americans are visiting libraries less than ever before. 53% of respondents to a 2012 Pew Research study said they had visited a public library in the past year, while in 2015, only 46% of respondents said the same. This decrease in public library usage among Americans spans all ages, education levels, ethnicities and incomes, but is most pronounced among socioeconomically disadvantaged respondents and those residing in rural areas.
Causes of library decline
Multiple factors have been held responsible by library advocates for the decline in library use.
First, digitization decreases use of print books. Most obviously, increased accessibility to the Internet through smartphones eliminates the need for books to answer most day-to-day questions. Furthermore, even when people choose to read a book, many prefer e-books to print books.
Ava Morgan ’20 said she prefers reading digitally because it allows her to find the information she wants quickly.
“Search options allow us to find information suited to our specific needs, which saves time that would have been spent flipping through tables of contents and indexes in a print book in a library,” Morgan said.
More broadly, Americans are reading less than ever before. A report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that in 1982, only 57% of American adults reported having read any literature including novels, short stories, poetry and plays in the past year. Though the survey includes reading digitally, this figure slipped to 43% by 2015—a three-decade low.
Finally, the government has been moving funding away from libraries since 2009, creating a feedback loop. A study from the Institute of Museum and Library Services found that the more funding libraries receive, the more they are used by the public. As libraries receive less funding, fewer people visit and funding further decreases. The increased usage drawn by funding could be due to larger and more updated collections, longer hours and a generally improved library atmosphere.
The value of libraries
Despite the declines in usage, libraries remain a resource hub to many. Based on a survey of 125 Marlborough students, 75% of the respondents said that they have checked out books from a library (in school or outside of school) to help them with a school project.
Sarah Mae Tuohy ’22 explained why public access to libraries is important to her.
“Libraries are important tools for research as they allow people to get quality information without having to spend a lot of money,” Tuohy said.
Changing with the times
Marlborough’s ARC, now the CEI, has undergone a renovation to encourage students to utilize its resources. In the Marlborough survey, only 9 of the 125 respondents said they check out books from the school library on a regular basis.
The space was redesigned to become a community gathering and study space as opposed to a traditional library, now including a brand new cafe, a media studio and a variety of quiet study areas. Additionally, tables were added between bookshelves to foster collaboration and stadium seating was installed for class meetings and presentations. Despite these major shifts, print books are still accessible to students and faculty and available to check out.
Jordan Hickey ’19 believes that the library changes are not only beneficial to the community, but that they also create a new positive environment for readers.
“As much as I personally love libraries for being havens of solitary reading experiences, I love that Marlborough is creating a space that combines reading, which very often is a purely independent activity, with fostering community, which is so central to our school’s ideology,” Hickey said.
While the changes are affecting the way students utilize the space, they also impact the faculty working within it. Head librarian Nichole Gomez explained how her role on campus has shifted with the growing importance of technology.
“Before technology was big, [being a librarian] was really about being a shepherd for the books and helping students find the information they needed, really dealing with the organization of the physical space,” Gomez said. “Now we help students and patrons navigate through [the sources] available.”
Not only is Marlborough’s ARC changing with the rise of the digital age, public libraries are also experimenting with creative uses of space. Some have built “maker spaces,” where visitors can explore technology like 3-D printers, or the Espresso Book Machine, a self-publishing service that allows for printing and pickup in minutes.
Rather than fighting the digitization of reading, certain libraries are also focusing on increasing the accessibility and quality of their online collections. A worldwide network of libraries has gained access to titles through the United Nations’ “Information for All Programme,” which seeks to increase global access to digital information.
Dean of Student Life Regina Rosi-Mitchell said that Marlborough is making changes in order to reflect today’s digital age.
“Just because we’re shifting away from the physical book does not mean we’re shifting away from reading,” Rosi-Mitchell said. “Despite Marlborough’s rich past, we’re also an institution that’s looking forward to the future and this space reflects that.”