Editorials, Opinion

Libraries in the 21st century

Perhaps you’ve seen those “alternative” weather maps that measure the snow forecast not in inches of accumulation, but in number of books you’ll need to keep yourself entertained until you can get out again.

These images, of course, don’t depict an actual forecast, but they reminded us of something very important: Even when the snow is deep and the roads are impassable, you still have a whole world of digital, audio and visual entertainment at your fingertips for free — as long as you have a library card and internet.

Libraries have long been imagined as stoic places of vast knowledge, overseen by older women sporting severe buns and half-rim glasses perched on the tip of their noses who will shush anyone who dares to speak above a whisper. It took a long time for public perception to meet the reality of public libraries as places where you can access not only books but computers and internet — and, even more than that, places where the community can come together (for free) to learn and play and meet others with common interests.

And some people haven’t realized that public libraries have come even further into the 21st century: Not only do they have physical collections; they now have vast and varied digital collections that you can access from your home computer or smartphone.

Morgantown Public Library reminded us of this last week when bad weather forced it to close: “… check out our digital library for some cozy reads on this wintry day! https://www.mympls.org/download-it/”

Follow that link and suddenly you have hundreds of e-books, audiobooks, movies and magazines, as well as newspaper archives, language and art classes, genealogy and research resources and more. All you need is a library card and internet.

At least some people in our area have discovered the library-beyond-the-library: Sarah Palfrey, executive director of the Morgantown Public Library System, said the system had 176,175 digital borrows in fiscal year 2023, and just under half of the system’s total circulation happened online.

But as any good book will teach you, every success has its cost. Digital loans can be more expensive for libraries because publishers can increase the cost of a book license (one license equals one copy) or limit the time the license can be used, forcing libraries to buy it again if there is still demand for the book after the license expires. On top of that, the library’s partnership with Hoopla — which lets readers access less popular titles then charges the library a fee per use — cost it $4,000 per month last year.

The library is happy to facilitate this access — and we can help facilitate its work by approving the library levy when it comes up on the ballot in May.

We can also support the library by using it: through digital downloads or by browsing the shelves in person or attending the many events it hosts. As Palfrey said, “libraries are more relevant than ever, because we do have all the information in the world accessible through our phones, but there’s still a need for a public space to connect with people …. Stories are so much more impactful when they’re shared between people.”