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The Complicated Role of the Modern Public Library

Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities: “There aren’t many truly public places left in America. Most of our shared spaces require money or a certain social status to access. Malls exist to sell people things. Museums discourage loiterers. Coffee shops expect patrons to purchase a drink or snack if they want to enjoy the premises. One place, though, remains open to everybody. The public library requires nothing of its visitors: no purchases, no membership fees, no dress code. You can stay all day, and you don’t have to buy anything. You don’t need money or a library card to access a multitude of on-site resources that includes books, e-books and magazines, job-hunting assistance, computer stations, free Wi-Fi, and much more. And the library will never share or sell your personal data.

In a country riven by racial, ethnic, political, and socioeconomic divides, libraries still welcome everyone. “We are open spaces,” says Susan Benton, the president and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council, whose members include public-library systems serving cities large and small across the United States. “We certainly are without judgment about anybody’s characteristics.” That commitment to inclusivity, along with a persistent ability to adapt to changing times, has kept public libraries vital in an era of divisive politics and disruptive technological change. But it has also put pressure on them to be all things to all people, and to meet a vast range of social needs without correspondingly vast budgets. These days, a branch librarian might run story hour in the morning, assist with a research project at lunchtime, and in the afternoon administer life-saving medical aid to a patron who’s overdosed on the premises…”

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