Have you been to a public library lately? I’ve recently been to several different towns in several different states, and the public libraries in each municipality have something in common: They each appear to be on their last leg. It seems as though we are experiencing the slow death of American public libraries.
Remember when public libraries were bright and cheery? Not anymore. Today, they are generally dark and gloomy and empty. The books are all old and battered. It is a challenge to find a single book published before the turn of the century.
The books they do have are placed haphazardly along the shelves, in no discerning order. Not in thick, tight rows, but in sloppy single-file lines, one leaning against the other for support. It is impossible to find what you are looking for with any ease.
There are no more card catalogs. Everything is computerized. But the computers are all IBMs from the 1980s, some of the first ever made. Boxy monitors with green screens. They are slow and ugly and they breakdown in the middle of your search.
I didn’t find many fellow guests at the public libraries I visited. What I did find were a few vagrants, people without homes who entered the library to escape the cold. They brought the stench of poverty and despair with them into the facility and somehow it seemed appropriate.
The librarians today aren’t always the helpful souls I remembered meeting as a child. They, too, have changed. They seem short-tempered, impatient, unhappy to be there. And who can blame them, the public libraries being what they are today.
Perhaps the most depressing sections were the children’s sections. In a couple of the libraries I visited I found overturned chairs, scattered magazines, broken toys. And it was early in the day. The children’s sections gave off a post-apocalyptic air.
And these aren’t simply the characteristics of a public library in a small, impoverished town. No, I visited a number of wealthier towns, including Wall Township in Central, New Jersey. Wall’s public library was one of the ugliest, saddest of all.
Does the technology out there today really make American public libraries obsolete? Of course not. Public libraries could be and should be as useful as ever, if they were reasonably maintained and updated. But towns across the country are willfully neglecting their public libraries, allowing them to die this slow, horrible death.
Today, you can go study in Starbucks.