Blog: Josie Parker

What is the role of the public library in the digital age? Where does it draw its funding? How is it impacted by downtown development? Josie Parker, director of Ann Arbor's District Library, weighs in on the future of one of our city's most beloved institutions.

Josie Parker - Post 3: Will public libraries exist at the turn of the next century?

Will public libraries exist at the turn of the next century? I am convinced that unless people other than book lovers and library professionals pay better and close attention, then the answer will be a definite no.

Public libraries as free libraries open to the general public have existed just over a century in the United States. Private research collections and subscription libraries have been in existence as far back as colonization, but what we came to know in the 20th century as public libraries owned and funded by local governments sprang up primarily from the philanthropic efforts of Andrew Carnegie.

Not much has changed from Carnegie's day in terms of wrangling over the purpose of public libraries, their architecture, interior design, and location. Carnegie anticipated such wrangling and, consequently, imposed conditions on communities accepting his money. These included a requirement that the community donate land and guarantee long-term funding of annual operations. He chose the architecture, exterior and interior.

It sounds like the worst possible scenario. A wealthy industrialist deciding local architecture for a building providing a service that was new in most American towns and cities; however, over 7,000 Carnegie libraries were built worldwide and many still serve as libraries.

Thankfully, ours does not.

The Ann Arbor Carnegie library opened in 1907, but only after several years of dispute between the City Commons Council, Ann Arbor Public School Board, and the Ladies' Library Association. The disagreements centered on the purpose of a free public library and its location. At one point Carnegie funding was actually declined, but a gift of 30K was later accepted and used to build a library whose façade is preserved on the new UM North Quad on Huron Street. The Ladies' Library Association was, and remains, a strong group of women who were determined to provide a library that was “public in the largest and freest sense” (Ann Arbor Daily Argus, December 13, 1903).

At the turn of the 20th century, print was critical and rare, and unavailable to all but the wealthy. Search engines were people, and those people needed to use print reference sources to answer critical questions. The publishing industry was developing, and then as now, collection size was a dominating factor in the size of a building. Carnegie buildings were usually small, but included space designed intentionally for children and in some communities, full size gymnasiums and performance theatres filled basement areas or second floors.

The Library in Ann Arbor has enjoyed uninterrupted support from donors and activists over its entire history. The value of publicly funded space, library collections, and services for all ages to use to learn and learn again, the adoption of technology as a tool, and the building of buildings to house those services was carried forward under the leadership of Library Director Homer Chance with the move out of the Carnegie building into a new Downtown Library, and with the opening of branch libraries.  Recent years have seen the Library continue to grow, adapt and change in order to continue to return to the community a fine library system.

The Carnegie model and vision saw libraries flourish over a century only to be faced today with conditions that may very well see them disappear all across America. Funding is eroding, content is no longer tangible, and the commonly held belief of many at the turn of the 20th century that access to collections for reading and learning was to be freely available and accessible is a fading value.

At the same time, 20th century thinking about building design, content delivery, and technology cannot be sustained in the 21st century public library. While all seems fine in Ann Arbor and the surrounding county, we won't escape the implications of decreasing revenue or the radical changes in the publishing industry. If we want the value of the public library to be deeper than just the façade of what things used to be, we need to know the challenges and meet them.