Book learnin'
August 1, 2007 11:42 AM   Subscribe

What are the social benefits of public libraries (and literacy)?

New South Wales did a study entitled Libraries and Social Capital; the Urban Libraries Council published Making Cities Stronger (both PDF links), and I'd like to read more, especially from sources that aren't actively trying to justify their funding (not that there's anything wrong with that) to market-thinking 'crats.

Why are physical public libraries important? What's their relationship to "the social fabric," esp. in terms of marginalized groups, crime, etc.?

Also, why is old-skool literacy important to a society, or at least how does it have a different impact than electronic literacy?

Rants from resident librarians welcome as well.
posted by Slam I Am to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I've long used my library as a source of foreign and/or somewhat obscure movies that Blockbuster doesn't deign to stock; it also has social programs of various stripes (ones for children, ones for computer training, ones promoting literacy, ones about local people/places/events). And of course it's a great source for free help with finding information you can't find on your own, so there's an implied level of social activism insofar as it helps people do what they'd like to do but don't yet know how.

Libraries are also generally known as a place that homeless people can go to during the day and not be bothered as long as they're not bothering others--unlike stores and restaurants, where people are expected to buy something or to pretend to be considering it--so if you believe in simple pleasures like reading or in laissez faire living then it's a plus for that.

Most libraries are also good for treating children and teens as people with brains inside their heads, with things they'd like to know and the implied right to know them. So in some small way libraries can help prepare children for being adults.
posted by Tuwa at 11:56 AM on August 1, 2007

I don't think you can separate old school and electronic literacy in a discussion of library policy--at least not while a significant portion of the underprivileged population has libraries as their primary source of free computer use and connectivity.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:59 AM on August 1, 2007

An informed populace is necessary for the smooth functioning of a free, democratic society. At least that's the theory, and I even believe it in my less cynical moments.

Why are physical public libraries important?

Because those most in need of a public library's resources and services are also those least likely to have a means of accessing a "virtual" public library.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:06 PM on August 1, 2007

I am a public librarian in a neighborhood where many people don't have their own computers.

-Access point to computers/ internet for those who can't afford their own computers and internet connections; this is important for job searches, typing resumes, distance education, and all kinds of research--both formal research for school and the more informal kinds of research we all use to find out what kind of car to buy or whether the junk mail you got is a scam.

-Access point to technical help with computers/ internet--one of the biggest parts of my job is helping people figure out anything from setting the margins on Word to using the backspace key.

-Community gathering place; this is one of the places tutors use to meet up with the kids they're tutoring, and a community group uses the library to meet.

-Considered a 'safe' place for kids to hang out unsupervised. Well, it isn't, really, and I wish that parents didn't think that it was, but there are far worse places for preteen kids to hang around.

-Access to, not just recreational reading, but books that are completely practical and useful: GED test prep books, cookbooks, personal finance...

As to why old-skool literacy is important: look at the paperwork that comes with a medical prescription, or a credit card...
posted by Jeanne at 12:10 PM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

there are many types of libraries, each with its own function. there are research libraries, school libraries, law libraries, public libraries, and more.

public libraries are generally a public resource for the benefit of the people. often, public libraries provide a wide array of services beyond simply lending books, like internet access, community centers, adult education, and more.

old school literacy is also an important issue for the functioning of society. if citizens do not have certain basic skills, then it becomes difficult to function in a modern society. paying taxes, applying for various licenses, and other services require these basic skills.
posted by Flood at 12:12 PM on August 1, 2007

oops - i should have previewed my post -
i repeated what jeanne and devilsadvocate said - they have it right
posted by Flood at 12:14 PM on August 1, 2007

One often overlooked use of the library is as one of the last true "commons". It's a piece of publicly owned property where anyone is welcome and can freely assemble. They often provide meeting rooms for community groups. So even if Perkins has banned your D and D group for tying up a table for 4 hours and just getting free refills on soda, you still have somewhere to go.

Also, the library building itself acts as a symbol and a reminder to citizens that when they need information there is SOMEWHERE to go. Even if they never physically come to the library, when they call or get on the library website, you can bet they are associating that encounter with the physical library. No building = no presence and no authority within the community.
posted by cosmicbandito at 12:14 PM on August 1, 2007

I think the economic benefit of literacy is pretty clear. If your workforce is illiterate, they're tough to train, and frankly tough to use in anything but ditch-digger jobs.

Even a McDonalds burger-flipper is a lot less useful if they can't read; you'd have to figure out a way to communicate with them in pictograms (thinking of those text-based displays that show what order to make next), all the training has to be hands-on or via video, they can't read posted signs or instructions. It's a problem.

I suppose if you wanted a 'control group,' you could probably look at China; I've been told on good authority that the literacy rate among the lower classes in rural areas is pretty low (the writing system is fairly complex, so that you need about the equivalent of a high-school education to be fully literate*...most people just don't have that much time). I assume that companies there have training regimes set up and tailored for workers who aren't totally literate, and that there are direct costs associated with this.

A little Googling turned up a paper by UNESCO (as a DOC file, or as HTML by Google) called "The benefits of literacy (human, cultural, social, political, human, economic)" which would probably be a good starting point.

* Though the person I was talking to was probably only counting "fully literate" as having a complete command of traditional Chinese; I assume that Simplified Chinese is somewhat easier to learn.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:19 PM on August 1, 2007

Why is literacy important? Well, the first thing that comes to mind is so that you can read the laws that you are governed by, and the rights that you are granted.

Also a great idea to learn the language of whatever country you're a citizen of for the same reason.
posted by Wild_Eep at 12:20 PM on August 1, 2007

Not a librarian, but a user.

- They serve a function as a central community information repository. They also hold community events. In some cases, they are more intricately woven into the community structure - for example my old library was adjacent to the local community center and my childhood library was adjacent to the local fire/police station.

- They serve as a warm/air conditioned, comfortable, safe place for people that don't have anywhere to go for the day (what tuwa said). They provide internet access and in some cases, training for those and all other people.

- They allow parents (and other people) that can't afford (or don't want) to buy books the opportunity to read and learn new things. Kids especially go through books pretty quickly, so it's a great resource for parents. I got tired of paying $10-$15 for a book, reading it once, and then having it sit on my shelf. So I get books for free from the library-saves me money and shelf space. I just moved to a new city and the very first thing I did, after getting a bank account? I got a library card.

- They foster more than literacy, they encourage the concept of lifelong learning. That's what I like best about them - I can indulge in my obsession du jour without breaking the bank. I can learn about finance, or Spanish, or home redecorating. The last time I was at the library the guy at my table, a construction-type worker, was reading about French renaissance painting (or something like that).

- They have texts/archives that are not accessible in a bookstore.

(on preview: what everyone else said)
posted by ml98tu at 12:23 PM on August 1, 2007

At my local library, I often notice how it's one of the only places I ever go where there's such a mix of generations and economic classes. For some of the seniors I see, I think it's probably one of their main social moments of the day. For a lot of the stay-at-home-moms with tiny babies, it probably is, too.

I love going to the library. It's a much more socially and economically diverse place than anyplace else in my community, and the only place I can go and be around young Orthodox Jewish moms with babies, old Orthodox Greek ladies, Persian teenagers, bums, Sikh kids, and that guy in the amazing purple spandex outfit all at the same time.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 12:39 PM on August 1, 2007

Best answer: Access point to computers/ internet for those who can't afford their own computers and internet connections

In these parts, it's not unheard of for the local or federal tax, immigration, social service, etc. bureaucrats to tell people who don't have a computer that they can "just go to the library" to fill out forms that aren't stocked on paper anymore, and are only distributed online. While library staff are generally happy to help, nobody said boo to the library about it in advance. Some agencies may be looking at it as a way to save money and load the burden off on the neighborhood librarian.

I bet further examination would turn up more examples of the local library picking up the slack when other agencies run short of money, staff or motivation.
posted by gimonca at 1:30 PM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just came back from a year of teaching English in Indonesia a few months ago, where the idea of public common goods seemed alien: if you could pay for something that lifted you one level of status above someone else, you did. Even with an great local salary, it was a MAJOR challenge to pay for English-language reading material for my own enjoyment, and any ideas I had about a reading club or a literature salon for some of my more advanced students was stopped for financial reasons.

Even though I was a very privileged member of society, I'd never felt so isolated from knowledge. The first thing I did the day after I got back was head to my local library here in Orange County, and a month later I went up to LA, about an hour from my house, and got a card to their city library which gives me free access to Rosetta Stone language lessons, the OED, and heaps of other benefits.

It was a truly frightening experience to be in a community where research was really only available to academics and the wealthy. I have great respect for the people in my life there, but I seriously question how the county's going to be able to develop a healthy political society for the long-term without the democratization of knowledge distribution.
posted by mdonley at 1:41 PM on August 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

explaining how and why libraries are good for the social fabric becomes a de facto argument for why you should fund them, so this may be a bit tricky.

In short, if you have a democracy, the argument goes, you need a way for citizens to get unbiased information that will help them make the choices they need to make as citizens, particularly, but not totally limited to, voting.

They need to be able to read this information (generally) and so literacy, both in terms of reading and in terms of comprehending media and technology are important.

It's argued that the public sphere is eroding in the US. The library is a place that epitomizes our democratic ideals, where people can, theoretically, be equal under a governmental type institution. This is important for our vision of democracy, that places like this exist. Otherwise all spaces where people can be in public are owned by companies or private individuals who set the limits for expression within their own spaces.

Poor people can't go to Amazon or other places to get books, the library serves a crucial role for them in giving them access to information in a way that is unbiased (more or less, I think more but it's a debatable point) and appropriate to their desires.

Old school literacy is understood, in the US as a social good. People need to be able to read so that they can hold down jobs, fill out paperwork and be citizens, generally. technological literacy is not seen as the same foregone conclusion despite, as people are saying above, it is becoming more and more mandatory to have a level of technological literacy for doing many of these same things ONLINE.

As the US shifts to e-government to save government money and time, people who do not have access to technology or the know how to use it get even more left behind than their class or social status might otherwise indicate. This should be embarassing to a country as rich as ours, with people as rich as ours.

The library as idealized is a place free from influence, free from salesmanship and free from the general class and culture wars that permeate and some may argue poison the rest of our social interactions with each other. Around here (rural VT) they're all we've really got for public space, public wifi or public technology access, so they're even more precious than they might be elsewhere.
posted by jessamyn at 1:44 PM on August 1, 2007 [2 favorites]

Libraries also support the social capital of small businesses. Whereas large and mid-sized corporations can afford to pay Forrester Research and other analysts and research firms millions or even just tens of thousands of dollars a year, sole proprietors, start ups and small businesses can't afford that luxury. Without access to information -- much of which is still found in books -- many small businesses would never get off the ground. Small busineses often provide valuable community links and address the unique cultural and economic needs of local groups. Heck, they're the ones that provide the bowling alleys where people now go bowling alone.
posted by acoutu at 2:04 PM on August 1, 2007

Best answer: On a personal note, as a library user who also buys a lot of books, it is truly a great thing to encounter books in a non-commercial setting. That is, a library is a place where the books that you see have not been chosen because someone wants to persuade you to buy them. They haven't necessarily been chosen because they're the "new hot thing", or because a celebrity has endorsed them or the author's appeared on TV. They are therefore a place to be reminded of the wonders of classic literature, and to discover marginal works that never got a big marketing campaign. Libraries are like wildflower meadows where bookstores are increasingly like monocultures. It's good to encourage biodiversity in the things we put into our brains.
posted by acalthla at 2:25 PM on August 1, 2007

How the hell would I read MetaFilter all day if I were illiterate? Heaven forfend!
posted by tristeza at 2:49 PM on August 1, 2007

Especially at lower levels of sophistication, reading a variety of books gives you perspectives that you couldn't get anywhere else. If you live in a bad inner city, how are you supposed to know what a political science professor at a top school thinks about what's happening to the US? Its doubtful you have someone you can directly talk to. Books give people a way to break out of the confines of where they are, if they're limiting.

Seconding all the previously said stuff about needing intelligent people for democracy. Having some say in government is pretty fundamental, and that now means electing people who you think say what you want. How are you supposed to judge this if you don't know anything about what they're talking about?

As for how it differs from electronic libraries... reading books on computers sucks. As in, seriously, majorly sucks. I have to do it now and then, and it is one of the least pleasant things I could think of.
posted by devilsbrigade at 3:02 PM on August 1, 2007

Why are libraries important?

They provide an opportunity for "working boys" (that some said should not be "entitled to books") to acquire the knowledge to improve themselves.
Carnegie library
posted by yohko at 3:22 PM on August 1, 2007

As a child, my parents were not able to afford to buy me many books. We had many, many books in the house, mostly focused on a few narrow topics, and not the sort of books that appeal to children in any case. Being able to go to the library allowed me to explore a much greater range of reading material than I would otherwise, and the freedom to find a book on any topic that struck my fancy ignited an intellectual curiosity that has greatly enriched my life.

You might suppose that this can all be done online now, but it is a different experience to go to the library than to search for something online. As a young child, my first visits to the library were a rare treat, and a special chance to pick out books. Many families cannot afford, or do not want, a computer at all, so their children would not be exposed to an online library. Even with a computer available, the online world is not geared to a child's explorations, has many distractions in games and myspace/facebook, and does not provide the versatility that books do. Books can be read under the covers, can be brought along while waiting for one's parents, and don't break easily when dropped.

I don't read nearly as many books now, and I usually buy them for myself. I don't make it to the library much, but when I do I like to see what is on the new books shelf, what the library has seen fit to add to the collection. I also like to see the monthly themes ... Black History Month. Custom Cars. Things I would not seek out if not encountered by happenstance.
posted by yohko at 3:40 PM on August 1, 2007

Literacy in itself is important because people who can read, can comprehend what they are reading and can express themselves accurately in writing are far more likely to be able to do all of the following:
- get and keep a job
- fill out the application for benefits if they don't have a job
- access and understand information about their legal rights
- access information about their health, including reading and understanding labels on medication, and explaining to a medical professional what their symptoms are
- understand the implications of legal documentation such as home loans or credit card applications
- find their way around an unfamiliar place using a map
- participate more effectively in the democratic process
- manage their own financial affairs
- understand arguments or opinions of others, and muster their own, and find evidence to support their opinions

Basically, lack of literacy equates to inability to function independently in Western society.

If you want a non-library point of view, here's a paper by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry which argues for the importance of literacy from a business perspective.
posted by andraste at 5:03 PM on August 1, 2007

As one who grew up in Pittsburgh, I had the privilege of going to the first Carnegie Library. It was an awe-inspiring place with domed ceilings, vast spaces, a reverence for books and learning. People took reading seriously. It was the first library I ever visited.

We also had the Bookmobile, where the books came to us on a bus. One day a week, it would visit our neighborhood, and we could check out a stack of books. We could reserve any book, and they would bring it to us. I remember there was always a line of elderly people and children at the bookmobile. I thought it was a magical thing.

A public library means you have an equal right to information. Access to information should be a right, not a privilege.
posted by clarkstonian at 5:28 PM on August 1, 2007

Best answer: 'Libraries Gave Us Power' -- a line from Old South Wales.

Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working-Classes is a very good historical survey of... well, what it says, and the role of the municipal and union library in self-education and self-advancement.

My family couldn't afford many books. They picked up the remnants of estate-sale collections that had no resale value. So I devoured the local library's books by the shelf, and spent afternoons in the reference section of my home town's Carnegie Library.

Libraries give us power. That is all that needs to be said.
posted by holgate at 6:38 PM on August 1, 2007

Best answer: I'll make a liar of myself.

If you look at Britain's industrial and commercial towns and cities, the ones that sprang out of the industrial revolution, you'll generally see the municipal library given pride of place, alongside the corn exchange or the town hall. These were towns that had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, gained political power, and used that power to promote the concept of the free public library. The Melbourne and Sydney public libraries were founded after the British example.
posted by holgate at 6:51 PM on August 1, 2007

If you're illiterate, it's going to be a lot harder to be one of those people who makes one of those amazing breakthroughs in medicine, physics, or what have you, even if you have the potential to be a brilliant chemist or something. Illiteracy is a barrier to getting access to higher education, and even the most innately talented person needs knowledge to be able to use that talent.

So, by promoting literacy we increase the pool of people the next [cure for $disease/more efficient energy source/whatever] can come from. We're tipping the odds.
posted by Many bubbles at 8:46 PM on August 1, 2007

Also, why is old-skool literacy important to a society?

As mentioned above, if you are stone illiterate, pointing-at-pictures-on-the-menu illiterate, you can't function as an independent adult in a modern technological society.

I guess old-skool literacy might not be all that important if you live in a small farming village, do manual labor and intend to spend the rest of your days in that small village, and marry someone local, all the while never devoting much, if any, thought to anything beyond the horizon or the crops or the mundane details of your neighbors' daily lives.

But even in the developing countries, the segment of the population who actually live this way is getting smaller and smaller.

or at least how does it have a different impact than electronic literacy?

I don't see a sharp division between the two. You need to know how to type out URLs to access webpages. Video has made some serious inroads in the last three or four years but the majority of the information out there on the web is still in print form.
posted by jason's_planet at 9:29 AM on August 2, 2007

« Older Shoes sound great, but where and how?   |   Best exchange rate for regular US$ to CA$... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.