The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Younger Americans can hardly imagine a time when you had to visit a library to research the population of Phoenix in 1980. Google now does that in seconds.

Entire books are downloaded to tablets in minutes. Classics from Moby-Dick to Shakespeare’s tragedies come virtually free. A project called the Digital Public Library of America now seeks to digitalize the entire Library of Congress and university collections.

And less of what we consider information comes in word form. Videos now explain everything from bicycle repair to how the Federal Reserve works.

So let’s ask: Do we still need public libraries, with their miles of dusty bookshelves, decimated reference departments, and rules of decorum? Yes.

We still want to read, study, and communicate in a non-distracting environment. And we still need what urbanologists call “third places” — that is, public spaces other than work and home. Public libraries are third places, along with cafes and old-fashioned bookstores.

It was predicted that the move to online communication would enable us to make a living on an isolated farm or private mountaintop. Many can, but the human need to mix with others of the species remains strong.

Herein lies the paradox: The more we can work at home the more we need third places for getting out in the world. That’s why many of the most digitally connected Americans are moving into downtown areas. That’s why Starbucks is so crowded, even in the suburbs.

And that’s why public libraries are taking on a new importance in economic development. Older public libraries in sad urban cores are seeing tables once dominated by those with no other place to go being occupied by 20- and 30-year-olds who’ve just moved downtown.

Gloversville, New York, has suffered hard times since the glove business collapsed in the 1950s. But it still has a glorious Beaux Arts library, built in 1904 with Andrew Carnegie’s money. The town is now renovating this grand building as a magnet for downtown revival.

One thing that made public libraries of yore less-than-ideal third places was they discouraged lively conversation. Today’s libraries have loosened up on that considerably.

“When my kids were little, I would not have even thought to bring them to the library,” one librarian told me.

Now there are cellphones going off and children running around.

Does anything go these days? “Yes and no,” she responded.

“We don’t want to stifle people too much when they’re talking and communicating,” she said, “but there have been times when I’ve had to stop someone using bad language close to the youth department.”

Libraries have expanded their offerings well beyond the printed word. Many offer computer and literacy training, meeting rooms, and much more.

The spectacular Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library in Kansas features an art gallery, cafe, and “booktique” selling used books, jewelry, and various gift items. I could have spent a week there.

Many older Americans miss the starchy grandeur of the old library experience — the venerable wood tables, mosaic floors, and hushed stacks. Should they just get over it?

John Palfrey, a founder of the Digital Public Library of America, warns against nostalgia for the public libraries of yesteryear. “Libraries must create a new nostalgia,” he wrote.

I don’t know. What’s wrong with nostalgia the way it used to be? The library’s retro feel fits right in with the downtown vibe. In any case, libraries can offer both old-fashioned reading rooms for traditionalists and (enclosed) rooms for video gamesters.

Public libraries are evolving with the times. One hopes that they will keep what’s nice while searching for the new.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at 

Photo: Samantha Marx via Flickr


Start your day with National Memo Newsletter

Know first.

The opinions that matter. Delivered to your inbox every morning

MAGA Children's Books

The GOP descent into full-blown conspiracy and fascist hell has not gone unnoticed as of late. With the right-wing dominated Supreme Court poised to finally overturn Roe V Wade and 2022 races focusing on backing Republicans who support Trump's 2020 election lies, democracy and decency are all but dead and Democrats are going to have to turn out big in the midterms to prevent a GOP takeover over the House or Senate.

But while the focus of progressive ire has been over the GOP's assault on reproductive rights, Republicans have also been waging a war on facts and education quite well. After all, they need their voters nice and ignorant to remain in power. Book banning and, sickeningly, book burning is a thing for the GOP in the year 2022. The state of Tennessee, for example, is banning books. In fact, a psychotic trump zealot pastor led an actual book-burning event.

Keep reading... Show less

Pat McCrory

Youtube Screenshot

If former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory is any indication, the GOP primary wounds wrought in the last several months stand a good chance of bleeding into the general election this fall.

McCrory, who lost his bid Tuesday to become the Republican nominee for the Tar Heel State's open Senate seat, declined to endorse his GOP rival, Rep. Ted Budd, the Trump endorsee.

Keep reading... Show less
{{ }}