Public libraries are massively important institutions. They are the most prominent form of library – when most non-librarians talk about libraries, they usually start by talking about public libraries. When I tell people I am a librarian, they usually assume I work in a public library. There are public libraries all over the world, and their variety is astounding. However the idea of a public library, as we understand it today, is not very old.
The first truly public library cannot be identified, although there are some early contenders. To the modern mind, a public library is one that is funded by government (be that federal, state or local governments), is open to all, and provides at least the basic level of service for free. However early libraries that were made available to the public were not necessarily publicly funded, and they were often founded by private institutions (like the clergy) or wealthy individuals (such as Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library). Many early libraries that may have considered themselves public libraries restricted access based on education, gender or social status.
Today’s public libraries offer services to their users across all stages of life. Many public libraries have toy libraries, and offer storytime and other services for children. Public libraries are great stores of young adult fiction, and most have strong collections in both fiction and non-fiction to satisfy the leisure and learning needs of their community. In the last 15 years these libraries are increasingly providing access to computer equipment and training, and often host visitors needing temporary internet access such as travellers, homeless people, and anyone not able to access the internet at their home or work. Public libraries often offer material in multiple languages to meet the needs of migrant communities, and in multiple formats (such as audio books and large type) for patrons with special needs. The library as a non-commercial social space is an incredibly valuable community resource.
Professional associations representing libraries place a strong emphasis on public library advocacy. There are lots of campaigns around the world to promote the value of public libraries, and these are often supported by those working in different sectors, as a way to strengthen libraries as a whole.
- Do you work in a public library? What kind of work do you do? What do you like about working in a public library?
- Do you use your public library? What is the best thing about public libraries? What do you believe the role of public libraries to be in our profession?