At a time where Netflix and iPads reign supreme, it is easy to overlook the old public library. It seems logical that with all these technological advances, public libraries would be as obsolete as video stores. However, this is certainly not the case. Rather, libraries have become a vibrant hub in the community that gives people a reason to come together, something that is important in our increasingly disconnected world.
If you have stepped foot in one recently, one stark difference will be the absence of rows of books. In keeping pace with the times and also to maintain their relevance, many libraries have now transformed that space into community hubs that welcome people from all walks of life. You can banish the thoughts of the dimly lit rows of musty books and replace it with tables of students studying, senior citizens playing chess and children enjoying story time. Having recently spent more time in my public library, it was striking to see the sense of connectedness that the library brings to all its consumers. It is one of the few places where entry is not barred by age or socio-economic status and now, no longer barred by your hatred of books.
So often, we hear about the isolation and loneliness encountered by our senior citizens. This is exacerbated for those who are not computer literate or are non-English speaking. However, when I saw the rows of senior men from a range of different backgrounds playing chess, it was particularly heartening to know that community can still be fostered in spite of the fast paced modern world. During another period of the week, I observed a group of elderly women at the ready with their knitting gear, ready for an afternoon of knitting and catching up. During story time, I saw hoards of kids from different backgrounds run enthusiastically towards the kids area. Behind them were their parents, grandparents and other assorted family members, all of whom came from various cultural backgrounds and ages. It would seem that story time (and the opportunity to have a break from child minding) has the ability to unite in a way that transcends language and cultural barriers, much in the same way as chess and knitting club.
For most of my time in high school and VCE, the library was my de facto office. It provided the sterile lighting and minimal comfort that was conducive to studying. I remember the irritation that I would feel when I could hear the screeches coming from the children’s play area or when people were talking too loudly, selfishly thinking about how much these distractions detracted from my studies. In reality, the amount of time and energy I spent focusing on these distractions probably outweighed the actual distraction. Now that I have had the time (and maturity) to step away from my selfishness, it is almost embarrassing to think that I was trying to take this away from people. For some, this time in the library may be the only time in their day where they get to step away from the mundaneness of reality, whether that be to take a break from looking after the kids or simply to take a break from their crushing loneliness.
If you haven’t been to your local public library in a long time, I encourage you to poke your head in and have a wander. At a time where the funding for public libraries is largely precarious and reliant on local government, we need to vote with our feet and ensure that these community hubs are sustained as we move towards a potentially paper-free future and greater isolation.