Everywhere, people are deserting the public space.
They’re not standing in line at the bank: They’re banking online. They’re not shopping for clothes at the mall: They’re getting clothes mailed to them at home. The internet is enabling people to meet their needs without going out.
Librarians have seen this coming for years, and many worried the library could become another space devoid of humans. But the internet hasn’t been the death of the library. In fact, the web has become the revival of its mission. And the library buildings themselves are full.
“We are the anomaly,” said Gary Wasdin, director of the King County Library System. “Every industry is facing that kind of brick and mortar struggle versus the virtual.”
The libraries of King County, Wasdin says “are packed. They are busier than ever and our attendance, the number of library visits each year, actually goes up. So we still see more people coming to the libraries, even though we know people are doing more and more at home.”
Libraries in the King County system are seeing more visitors. The number grew by about 50,000 in both 2014 and 2015, to more than 10 million visits overall.
Wasdin says the hollowing out of the middle class is partly why. The last great recession forced people into a job market at a time when job applications had moved online. Many people were unemployed and could not afford internet service. Libraries became essential then, and they remained essential as the jobs recovery dragged on and on.
"The need only was getting greater,” says Chance Hunt, Seattle Public Library’s director of community partnerships. “And we were having to scale back.”
While the King County Library System found its funding largely stable during the recession, the opposite was true for the Seattle libraries. Branch hours were slashed and even the library’s web office sustained cuts. Seattle voters ended that downward spiral with a library funding levy in 2012.
Today visitor counts to Seattle libraries don’t reflect the growth seen in King County, but a spokesman said there had been inconsistencies in Seattle’s counting technology. Digital downloads from the library are up.
But on a visit to Seattle’s Central Library last week, it was clear that the life of the library had not escaped to the online world. Singing from an afternoon performance on the Central Library’s first floor wafted upward and filled the entire library.
It was a performance by some Taiwanese youth, Hunt said. And it’s a reminder that the library remains the place where everyone belongs.
“There are very few places in our city, our public spaces for sure, where that level of just, welcome, is extended.”
This story came to us from a listening session KUOW held in Kent. Do you have a story for us about your neighborhood? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.