When was the last time you visited a library?

And to what purpose?

The word library comes from liber which is Latin for book and originally meant “the inner bark of trees”.

But the most popular “book” among kids today has nothing to do with trees.

I’m talking about Facebook, of course.

Sounds far-fetched?

A Day In The Local Library

Yesterday, I went to the local library in order to print and copy some papers.

It’s a beautiful but… empty building.

At least it seemed empty until I reached the computer corner, for in these few square meters were more visitors than in the whole big building!

Every computer was occupied by a kid that was either watching videos on YouTube, hanging out on Facebook or doing something text-based.

When one of the stations became vacant, I plugged in my USB and started printing.

Suddenly, one of the librarians appeared and started fussing with the printer and the computer it was attached to. Apparently, there was a jam because someone had accidentally (?)  tried to print out dozens of … Facebook profiles.

When the librarian had cleared the queue and reset the printer, I clicked “print” again.

Page one came through.

Then, a queue of kids was suddenly behind me, waiting for their print-outs.

And then something amazing happened.

The kids started milling around asking me very politely what I was waiting for and how they might help.

Together we started troubleshooting the process. One of them manned the computer and tried to get my document into the queue again, another one opened the paper tray of the printer and announced that there was only one paper left and that he would get more from the librarian.

They completely took over.

When the document finally was printed, I thanked the kids for their help and proceeded to find a copy machine.

I walked through the empty library, through an empty corridor, turned a corner and there was the copy machine, next to a second computer corner which unsurprisingly was also completely occupied by kids going about their online business!

After that experience, I knew for certain libraries weren’t dead, yet.

Only, they were not primarily about books anymore!

Here are four ways in which public libraries all over the world might be able to answer educational issues of today and keep themselves from extinction by latching on to the future at the same time:

1. Bridging The Digital Divide

A local library is a perfect place to enable Internet access for kids who don’t have any or only inadequate access at home. Also, it can be a great strategy to get away from nagging siblings, overly-curious parents and simply have some peace of mind in the silence of the library’s computer corner.

Enabling this access from a library perspective is not expensive. Even older computers are often good enough for the basics of web-browsing and word-processing.

Also, it’s a great way to invite kids to get away from the screen alone at home and access the Net together with their peers.

2. Away From The Lonely Screen, Into The Information Community

Maybe my printing-experience was not the norm but I had a strong feeling that there was a feeling of kinship and mutual support among the young websurfers.

And I do believe that they can help each other a lot.

Kids don’t read manuals. (At least I’ve never seen one do it…)

Mostly, they deal with technical things in a trial-and-error way.

In a computer corner they can always ask their peers when something doesn’t work.

Either someone knows the solution to the problem or they’ll engage in mutual troubleshooting.

In any case, they are amongst themselves and can develop confidence and team-working strategies by working together.

3. Integration Of Private And Public

At least in the library which I visited, kids seemed to be left to their own devices.

There was no guardian looking over their shoulder and since Youtube and Facebook were working, even the blocking seemed to be moderate.

Each of the children was focusing onto their own screen.

And yet they were all sitting side by side.

In other words: They had their privacy, in public.

The fact that some of them were on Facebook, the site most discussed for its “privacy issued” seemed no coincidence.

Old either/or notions of what is public and what is private are rapidly changing.

The open, communal space of the library might be able to give children both the freedom to do as they please in the Online World (within obvious limits) and the constant contact with other kids in Real Life.

4. Re-Claim Your Reading Aparatus!

And last but not least is the often-lamented issue that kids of today don’t read enough.

Accessing the Net in a library puts them into a certain state-of mind of quiet concentration, a prerequisite to reading and a counterpoint to the constant distraction of technology.

Whether libraries will eventually provide visitors with e-readers or kids will bring their own or even pick up a “dead tree” book, connecting kids and libraries  may help bridge the gap between a vanishing medium (paper) and a generation bent on digital acceleration.

When was the last time you visited a library? What was your experience? Leave a comment below!

img: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Wojtek Gurak