(Chris Tumbusch/Pierce County Library System)

Technology can actually make it easier to connect library patrons with an actual person.

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” So wrote the steel baron and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who donated a great part of his vast fortune to establish some 3,000 such libraries around the English-speaking world, from his native Scotland to Fiji, and in 47 of the United States. Carnegie believed that libraries should be more than just repositories for books. He envisioned them as community centers as well, and many of them serve that purpose to this day.

But libraries in the 21st century face challenges that Carnegie could not have anticipated, and have struggled to retain their central role to the lives of cities and towns. One of the most profound realities libraries face is the move of readers away from printed books. In 2010, only 6 percent of Americans owned a tablet or e-book reader. By 2012, that percentage had jumped to 33 percent.

Libraries are responding to the decline of print in a variety of creative ways, trying to remain relevant – especially to younger people – by embracing the new technology. Many, such as New York’s Queens Public Library, are reinventing themselves as centers for classes, job training, and simply hanging out. In one radical example, a new $1.5 million library scheduled to open in San Antonio, Texas, this fall will be completely book-free, with its collection housed exclusively on tablets, laptops, and e-readers. “Think of an Apple store,” the Bexar County judge who is leading the effort told NPR. It’s a flashy and seductive package.

But libraries are about more than just e-readers or any other media, as important as those things are. They are about more than just buildings such as the grand edifices erected by Carnegie money, or the sleek and controversial new design for the New York Public Library’s central branch. They are also about human beings and their relationships, specifically, the relationship between librarians and patrons. And that is the relationship that the foundation created by Microsoft co-founder’s Paul G. Allen is seeking to build in a recent round of grants to libraries in the Pacific Northwest.

While the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation is funding tech initiatives such as a smartphone app for the Washington State Library, the focus on the human element is key, according to Sue Coliton, the foundation’s vice president. “We believe it’s not either/or,” says Coliton. “The technology opportunities are additive. The librarian should remain at the center.” 

So one of the major investments the foundation is making this year is in a readers’ advisory program that will pair library patrons in Multnomah County, Oregon, with librarians who will personally assist them with reading choices, building long-term relationships that will ideally transcend any technological innovations. It builds on a program at the Seattle Public Library in which readers submit answers to a short questionnaire to get advice from individual librarians on what they might want to read next. The new Oregon program will be designed as a model that librarians around the country can look to.

In an environment where we are continually being solicited to buy, click on, or otherwise consume products selected for us by algorithms (which often make ridiculous and even insulting suggestions), the presence of a guiding human sensibility seems more valuable than ever. A good librarian, unlike the monetizing formulas employed by Google or Amazon or Facebook, is not only capable of independent thought, he or she is also committed to nurturing critical thinking in others. All the technological bells and whistles a library can employ are pretty much worthless if there’s no one minding the store.

“Studies show that patrons are more engaged with libraries when they have a relationship with a librarian,” says Lisa Arnold, who manages grants and library programs for the Allen foundation. And the librarians she meets, says Arnold, are passionately convinced that libraries, with all the information they contain, are anything but obsolete in the modern age. “To a person, people I meet are so excited about the future of libraries,” says Arnold. “They scoff at the idea that libraries are going away.”

The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset had this to say about librarians in 1934 – another time in history when people felt overwhelmed by social change, new technologies, and an uncertain economy:

Here, then, is the point at which I see the new mission of the librarian rise up incomparably higher than all those preceding. Up until the present, the librarian has been principally occupied with the book as a thing, as a material object. From now on he must give his attention to the book as a living function. He must become a policeman, master of the raging book.

Where did I find that quotation and the one that opened this piece? On the website of the International Foundation of Library Associations and Institutions. You should check it out.

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