Why do we need libraries in the Internet age?

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After hearing about Milton’s new library, a friend of mine asked me why we even need libraries anymore.

In today’s age of e-readers and the Worldwide Web, why do we need a place for thousands of hardcopy books, he asked. Why not go paperless? When nearly every novel or article printed in all of human history is available for download – many of which are free – what’s the point?

I had to admit, this was a good argument for not having libraries full of just books. However I told my friend that a library is more than just a storehouse for sheaves of printed paper.

Former Roswell Library Manager Louise Conti said it best in a November 2012 article written in this paper about her retirement.

“Libraries are an important part of the community,” she said at the time. “They bring culture, education and they are meeting place where people can gather. Businesses looking to move to a new community look for strong library systems. They signify a literate community and that means people who will make good employees.”

Beyond the books are public-access computers, databases of journals and newspapers going back a hundred years or more and encyclopedias with verified, non-Wiki truth.

The computers and free Wi-Fi at libraries are used by millions of people to search for jobs or learn job skills. A large percentage of the populace in Fulton County, at least, wants their libraries. That is why the $275 million bond referendum to expand the library system passed in 2008 with 65 percent of the vote.

Even more, libraries are gathering places. They are a community hub of action and information. Meetings of all kinds are held at libraries daily – from community action gatherings to simple study-buddies getting together.

It’s also one of the few places in the world today where there is actual quiet. Go to a coffee house and there is a lot of chatter and music. Your own home has personal music, television, video games, family and pets all demanding attention. But in a library, there is none of that. Anything louder than a whisper gets a “shhhh!” from the librarian. Concentration is actually possible! Imagine that.

Lastly, there is the obvious – books. I’m not so young that I only read electronic novels, shunning the physicality of tomes. I still enjoy sitting in a comfy chair (preferably next to a fireplace, but I’m not picky) and reading a good book.

Just like with newsprint, I firmly believe there is a value and a different feel to something held in the hand. Turning that page is enjoyable in a way pushing a button is not.

To hold a book in my hands, feeling its weight and smelling its glue and print, is a tactile experience people may soon forget, and at their loss. The younger generations are already there. But books are more than just repositories of information. They are an experience and entertainment.

That’s why libraries are important and why communities that have one try their best to keep it.