Are Libraries Past Tense?

Have you been to your local library lately? It’s time. And with September being Library Card Sign-Up Month, libraries around the country are being especially creative in building membership and awareness of services. Plus they’re raising funds to support their future existence.

They’ve Come A Long Way

0507_library-booksLibraries probably began around 1200 BCE, with excavations identifying a palace library, a temple library and two private libraries in Syria. The Library of Alexandria may be the world’s most recognizable early library. It flourished in the 3rd century.These early libraries and the Greek and Roman versions that followed them were hardly public lending libraries. In fact, they were available only to scholars or to the wealthy who proudly displayed their collections in their private houses. Yes, a library in your house was a status symbol. Even if you couldn’t read.

As you progress forward in time, the Middle Ages saw a focus on religious texts. Christian monks, whose spiritual development was linked to copying manuscripts, scribbled away for hours a day. With such production, medieval monasteries began to accumulate large libraries. The Renaissance transitioned to the scrolls of the Greeks and Romans. Scholars brought in originals of these ancient tests from Byzantine and Islamic sources and made multiple copies. Like their predecessors, these libraries too were generally not for public use.

Public lending libraries as we recognize them today only came on the scene during the French  Revolution when revolutionaries confiscated private and church book collections. Two professional librarians organized over 300,000 books and manuscripts that then became the property of the people at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Logically, as the collections became more massive, the system for cataloging the materials became more methodical.

Today, most of the modern world has access to a well-oiled machine. Libraries have proven to be essential local and global resources.

Reality Bites

compcenLibraries today have a significant amount of change to consider. For example, as technology continues to evolve, and e-books and e-book readers become more and more prevalent, administrators are forced to make sometimes difficult and expensive decisions.To meet their clients’ demands for increased access, U.S. libraries now offer a wide selection of digital books, but in doing so, face high costs for access from the major publishers. At the same time, many libraries face budget cutbacks from state and local governments. There seems to be no doubt that libraries must change to survive.

The Future… or the Now?

You may think that virtual libraries are an adventure that is yet to become reality. Wrong. Just two weeks ago–on September 14, 2013– we saw the opening of an all-digital public library in Bexar County, Texas. Perhaps you saw the feature on NPR highlighting the event. They are offering about 10,000 free e-books for a community that includes San Antonio. The system includes an actual physical library space that offers e-readers, kids’ story time and more. More and more of these types of library facilities will be opening in the coming years.

Department Library 2But what about the books themselves? I have heard colleagues remark that if it is not available as an e-book, they will not buy it. What will happen to these vast collections? Are libraries destined to become museums with their precious tomes behind glass? Many of us still hang on to the love of turning a page and the time spent wandering through crowded used bookstores. In my book (pun intended!) very little compares with a rainy day, a cozy spot and a good book. Are future generations at risk of losing that experience?

To me, creating and expanding a strong public library system is just as important as preserving and building my family’s history. I have chronicled my family’s history for years. Most recently, I’ve added a new dimension: collecting my family’s oral history. At the same time, I invest in my community, and I’m currently involved in a fundraising effort for the construction of a “new” library and community center in my town. We plan to use a converted historic building.

Treat your local library well. Take a role in its future. Consider its service in your family’s story.

Jen BaldwinGenealogist Jen Baldwin is the owner of Ancestral Journeys, specializing in the Rocky Mountain Corridor. She writes for a variety of publications, speaks regionally on genealogy related topics, is the creator and co-host of #genchat on Twitter, and owns Conference Keeper. She also is co-creator and Co-Chair of the NextGen Genealogy Network and is the Director of Operations for The In-Depth Genealogist. You can connect with Jen on her website or on social media.

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