The most important difference between Google and the Public Library: Us
“If librarians can’t save the world, no one can.”
The obvious differences are clear – one’s a private company trying to take over the world and making oodles of money doing it. (yeah, I use it all the time too.)
The other is a public institution that exists to serve us – all of us. There’s no profit to be made, no data to sell, it’s free and there are librarians who can help you learn things and figure out how to find what you’re looking for. (No, google isn’t free. We pay in ad targeting and we pay in the power we give them over information.)
But those aren’t the most important differences.
The essential difference is that libraries are centers of learning, creation and, most importantly, community – where we come together, we interact with each other across many differences and where we see ourselves as part of a civic community. These are all essential public goods that we all benefit from whether we use the library or not.
Libraries are evolving and the Memphis Public Library System profiled in the latest issue of Smithsonian Magazine is at the cutting edge. Read the article, it’s very cool - not just because of the well-designed buildings, the many programs, and all the cool stuff they do. And they do a lot of it. But it's because they understand their core public purpose.
Better to use their words.
“We exist for the betterment of communities. We support literacy and learning. We want all our resources to be free and everyone to feel welcome.”
“We … view libraries in a different light, as an activated space for learning in every form, not just for reading and checking out books.”
“We have to get outside our buildings and bring our programming into the community. There are a lot of people in Memphis who can’t afford cars, and public transportation is limited. So we’re going to senior centers, schools, block parties. We bring robots [from our robot-building workshops] to keep the kids occupied, while we talk to the parents.”
“In a city with a very high poverty rate, [the] libraries are oases of care, civility, activity and opportunity.
“If librarians can’t save the world, no one can. “They have no ego, they’re not looking for glory, they just want to change lives and transform communities, and we have an army of them working in Memphis every day.”
And don’t forget, it’s free to enter, but it’s not free. We all pay through our taxes. It’s the only way to ensure that they are available to everyone and it’s how we acknowledge that learning, knowledge, and community are universal rights and that we all have to do our part to pay for them.
And FYI, I also love independent bookstores. I've been urging people to buy my book (released Nov. 23!) at their local indy store or at Bookshop.org, a great alternative to that online store that shall not be named.
Speaking of creation and community, the Let It Grow project in Scotland during COP26 is one of the most powerful works of art and action that I’ve seen (maybe ever!) Karine Polwart wrote the song, Enough is Enough, with Oi Musica as the musical anchor and they asked people around the world to create their own versions. And they did – children, community choirs, people sitting around the campfire, flashmobs during COP26 and much, much more.
Go to their Facebook page and check out all the amazing versions that people across the globe created. The kids’ versions give me hope (I need it more than ever.)
Here’s a few of my favorites:
The UK Youth Carnival Collaboration will blow your mind
The children! Watch till the end to see how they lead the community.
Even the Leeds City Council got in on it!