Discussions of the future of libraries are often surprisingly nostalgic endeavors, producing laments for vanished card catalogs or shrinking book stacks rather than visions of what might be. Even at their most hopeful, such conversations sometimes lose track of the pragmatic functions that libraries serve. Imagined as unchanging archives, libraries become mere monuments to our analog past. But envisioning them as purely digital spaces also misses the mark, capturing neither what they can be nor the way their patrons use them.
According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, low-income and minority Americans are far more likely than others to assert that they would be negatively affected if their local library closed. The survey suggests that this has much, or more, to do with access to computers and the Internet—which is critical for job searchers and entrepreneurs—as it does with the opportunity to check out books. Public libraries aren’t just educational destinations; they also provide access to economic opportunities available through few other venues.
Similar patterns almost certainly hold worldwide. According to a 2014 report by the International Telecommunication Union, more than 4 billion people still lack basic Internet access. As John Palfrey notes in his book BiblioTech, “The library’s role in the learning process is being displaced by commercial outfits (think of Amazon and its recommendations) and highly distributed nonprofits (think of Wikipedia).” But the ITU’s data suggest that those resources—even the open source ones—are available to a small percentage of the world’s population.
Zero-rating services, such as Internet.org, offer one solution, bringing some of those people online by offering a limited version of the Internet. Critics of such proposals argue that they create a tiered Internet by funneling users toward a small handful of large sites. Though these services may help to close the digital divide, according to this line of thought they also threaten to impose new forms of inequality, leaving the rich with the whole Web while the poor get Wikipedia and Facebook. Arguing in favor of these controversial programs, Darrell M. West of the Brookings Institution writes that “in conjunction with free Wi-Fi networks or library-based devices [these programs represent] a way to bring digital access to those who otherwise could not pay for desired services.” Here, the key word may well be devices. Internet access—whether or not it’s limited—isn’t especially meaningful if those who would benefit from it it don’t have a way to get online. As bastions of the material in an increasingly digital world, libraries can and do furnish those tools.
Significantly, however, this isn’t all they provide. It is, of course, possible to imagine public facilities that would let their visitors go online and do little more—something like free Internet cafés. But libraries also offer an array of other ancillary information services—and, critically, assistance to help visitors make sense of them. In support of the claim that zero-rating initiatives aren’t as limiting as they seem, West notes, “In reality, people who go online access other products and find ways to limit their data cap charges.” Though he doesn’t immediately elaborate on this assertion, public libraries offer both those “other products” and assistance in using them. And as Internet.org and similar programs become normative, such public services will grow all the more necessary.
This means that libraries may also play an important role in social and political developments. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions argues this very point when it proposes that libraries contribute to government transparency and civic participation. This squares with the Pew report’s findings, which show that in the United States, the majority of adults who use library facilities were actively involved in their communities, and a significant percentage had also worked to influence government policy. Of course, it isn’t clear that libraries cause such participation, but it seems that they’re connected to public engagement more generally. Importantly, the IFLA also stresses that librarians can insert themselves into this process by facilitating and encouraging information access.
Similar insights are also at the heart of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s global libraries strategy. (Disclosure: My mother, Deborah Jacobs, directs the Gates Foundation’s global libraries initiative. My conversations with her and my familiarity with her work have influenced my observations in this article. The opinions expressed here are, however, entirely my own.) The Gates Foundation holds that libraries can offer Internet training as well as simple access. By doing so, it proposes, these institutions can impact everything from public health to environmental activism.
To this end, the foundation has funded the work of organizations like READ Global, which constructs library and resource centers throughout rural regions in South Asia. As Tina Sciabica, READ’s executive director, told me, in the process of serving whole communities these facilities also provide a safe space for women, some of whom are otherwise unable to leave the home without the permission of their husbands. “Once there, the women can gain access to literacy classes, self-help groups (savings cooperatives), health programs, and livelihood training that they otherwise would not be able to access,” Sciabica told me. To some extent this is possible because READ actively involves local communities in establishing the libraries and requires co-investment, instilling a sense of collective ownership.
Naturally, libraries won’t be able to function in this capacity without changing themselves. As a report from the Aspen Institute (produced in collaboration with the Gates Foundation) acknowledges, the association between libraries and physical books will probably shrink in the years ahead, a process that is already well underway. Nevertheless, the report stresses, “The public library remains a destination for many users, serving many purposes.” It’s this openness to various needs that’s most important, especially from a development perspective, as it allows libraries to respond to specific needs: In Botswana, for example, where economic diversification is a priority, the Gates Foundation helped create library services designed to encourage small business development. Instead of imperialistically imprinting the same mode of learning everywhere, libraries can respond to the changing particulars of different communities and contexts.
Libraries are powerful precisely because they’re spaces of potentiality. They are, as the Aspen report puts it, “platforms,” foundations on which many structures can be built. To speak of their future, then, should be to speak of a collective future, one from which none are excluded.
This article originally appeared on Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.