Opening Letters

Think Libraries Are Passé? Think Again

despite claims to the contrary, libraries are still vital to our communities

Rob Reid, photos by Andrea Paulseth |

L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library’s BookBike
L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library’s BookBike

If your image of public libraries is like that new Jennifer Garner “What’s in your wallet?” commercial – the one where the librarian is shushed by disgruntled library patrons trying to read – then you probably haven’t been in a public library for some time.

If nobody is using public libraries anymore, then why did nearly half a million folks go through the doors of Eau Claire’s L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library in 2017? 

There has been a spate of fake news about public libraries on social media this past year. Actually, not fake news as much as poor journalism, written by folks I imagine are sitting at home or in their offices at their computers and imagining what libraries are like, not having been in one for some time. They are most likely thinking: “The library is a dinosaur.” “Librarianship is an obsolete profession.” “No one reads books anymore.” 

A few months ago, one Andre Walker, a columnist for the New York Observer, posted on Twitter that “Nobody goes to libraries anymore. Close the public ones and put the books in schools.” More than 110,000 people responded to the tweet telling Walker how wrong he is. He finally responded by writing, “Your sheer numbers have proved the point that libraries aren’t as unpopular as I believed this morning! Please stop replying!!!”

Unfortunately, Walker is not the only one with prehistoric notions of the modern public library. Michael Hoon of the Job Network reported that librarians are one of eight professions that won’t exist in 2030 because “people are clearing out their paperbacks and downloading e-books on their Tablets and Kindles instead.” He goes on to say that since books are falling out of favor, “you’ll have a tough time finding a job if you decide to be a librarian.” Reading a piece like this makes the modern-day librarian roll her or his eyes. 

If nobody is using public libraries anymore, then why did nearly half a million folks go through the doors of Eau Claire’s L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library in 2017? Actual door count statistics show that 422,127 customers came into the library last year, about 1,000 per day on the days the library was open. That does not even include the folks exposed to outreach programming such as school/daycare visits and some of the services listed below.

Why did that many people come into a place that the above writers considered outdated? The following is a list of newer services and resources going on at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library:
Instituted the BookBike service. Staff members pull a trailer of books – along with check-out equipment that also allows folks to sign up for a card – around town to places such as the Sounds Like Summer Concert Series, the Eau Claire Downtown Farmer’s Market, the Doll and Pet Parade, and more. The locations of the BookBike will expand this year;

• Opened the Dabble Box Makerspace, which – among other things – lets community members dabble with science, technology, and art using tools such as a 3D printer;

• Hosted Hogwarts after Dark, an evening program designed for adults 21 years and older, who came and filled up the library playing fun nostalgic games and visiting with each other;

• Added Hoopla (a service offering digital books, digital audiobooks, digital movies) and Flipster (digital magazines); 

• Expanded early literacy community sites; 

• Launched Books on Buses, which allows city bus riders to borrow books from racks right inside the buses;

• Implemented Pay to Print and color printing for the public, including the option to send a print job from home;

• Eliminated late fees and fines for the majority of the materials available for checkout. Library staff have already heard from people who are returning to the library because of this new policy.

These are just a few of the updates going on at the public library in Eau Claire. Many of these services and programs were unheard of when I was working in public libraries in the 1980s and 1990s. (Back then, we were considering going from a card catalog to an online catalog!) More changes are on the horizon to keep the library as a strong community hub. Reports are that the libraries in Altoona, Chippewa Falls, Durand, and Elk Mound are also doing amazing things. 

If it has been awhile since you have been in one, please join your 400,000+ neighbors and visit the local library. Be sure to ask the staff about all they have to offer. They will be there waiting for you, and they will be at your service way past the year 2030.