The Crux of the Biscuit: Do I Believe in Libraries?

Probably three nights ago, I was reading to my three-year-old son like I always do before he goes to bed. This time, I read a non-fiction book called Amazing Creations . Basically, this is a primer that writes descriptions of some famous world landmarks like the Pyramids and Sphinx in Egypt and the Eiffel Tower.

I noted at least one factual error in the book — it includes the myth that the Great Wall of China can be seen from Outer Space.

It is fairly US-centric, including more than average US landmarks (Mt. Rushmore, the Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building etc.) and one of them caught my son’s eye: The Hoover Dam.

“Tell me more, about it Dad.” says he.

This is a hard thing. I know nothing about the Hoover Dam. That’s a US thing, that I might see if I’m in the vicinity and learn more about as a tourist. But I can’t say anything interesting about the dang thing. So my reply is:

“I think you will have to go to the library to learn more.”

And that decision right there has me thinking about the degree to which libraries are relevant in the Web 2.0 technology world. The Crux of the Biscuit here is this: Will telling my son to go to the library be more effective for his life-long-learning than telling him to look it up on the net. In a very superficial way, the answer is “no.” The Internet would be a much, much more efficient way to get the answer to his question. And indeed, if I didn’t already know that the library was part of his weekly routine, I probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelash at the Internet.

But in a more “thinking big picture way” I am emphatic that my son will have an advantage over other kids because I choose to say “go to the library.” I admit a bias here, but I have an experience that supports this theory. Here are six reasons I think sending a kid to the library to find out about stuff is better than telling him/her to look it up on the net.

  1. The Learning Environment
  2. An Other Mind
  3. Serendipity
  4. The Digi-Print Combo
  5. Creating a Learning Routine
  6. The Motivational Factor

The Learning Environment

If they are designed well, libraries will encourage learning. Everything from where the chairs are set to the kinds of symbols and toys placed around the building should foster a love of learning in a child. Compare this to the average bedroom, office or kitchen table. The home or office is a place to be productive.   That too, is the symbolism of the computer.  On a computer either you are playing games or doing work or that’s the attitude anyway.

Learning is neither playing or work. It should not be seen as frivolous nor should it be something that should be rushed.  Learning is a serious yet fun activity that helps a human being develop.  A library is designed to emphasize the fun-yet- serious aspect of learning.

When my son walked into the library, he paid homage to all his favorite things — the penguins who were dressed up for the cold now it was Winter and especially all the other kids in the place who were reading, learning and having fun too.   There was nothing productive nor wasteful about the experience.   It was a library visit — transcending a crass cost-benefit analysis.

An Other Mind

When I called this blog “The Other Librarian” I partly meant that the way to access true librarianship was to imagine an “Other” that could challenge opinions, destroy assumptions and keep a person second guessing about what it means to be “library”.

Diversity is an essential part of learning in my view and a Google search doesn’t cut it, or at least not on its own. In my view, there is an intrinsic value to asking someone else to help you with a search. If nothing else, the other person could end up using different search terms than those you might try yourself.

I am an auditory learner. This means I learn better when I can express my thoughts to someone else, even if they are only a “sounding board” for my ideas. That Other person is a godsend for this kind of learning style.

My son loved sharing that he wanted to know more about the Hoover Dam with library staff. Even more he enjoyed that they asked him questions to pin-point what he really wanted. The “other minds” there helped him get at his own desire for knowledge and that is something that Google could not do.


Actually, before my little guy asked for the information on the Hoover Dam, he first asked for a puzzle. Then he asked for a game so he could flick a spinner and count the squares to put him where he belonged on the board. Then he saw a book on Motor Graders and grabbed that for a while.  At this library visit, his learning was not restricted to a specific “information need” but developed into an information haven, where all the neurons in his head would snap, crackle and pop as he went from resource to resource.

Faceted searching aside, Dewey still does a great job of sexing up a search. Even though Amazon and Library Thing has book covers to attract people’s attention online, they do not have the diversity of shapes, colors, sizes and contasts that the physical library has. And there is a “slow” serendipity about the physical library too. After your average Library Thing session, I usually feel like I have a lot of catching up to do. After a library visit, I feel more satisfied and relaxed.

The Digi-Print Combo

There is nothing like using a computer with a good print resource on your lap. The library encourages this sort of multitasking better than the average home office.

After Mr. Hoover Dam got his book, he wanted to use a family computer. I didn’t have my card at the time, but I can just imagine sitting with him and comparing the book information to the Internet information. This is true triangulation of sources — a high-level research skill that he’s learning at three-years-old. Library-ho!

Creating a Learning Routine

It’s fairly simple. Get hooked on the three-week circulation cycle, and you have a darn good habit for yourself and all your family. This means that you can re-think what sources you will check every-so-often and, well, just remember to add some learning to all the other routines in your life.

We never get stuck in a rut of “favorite books” at any one time. Sure my guy has his favorite books and such, but we always have a helping of something different to try out. He’s always interested at story time.   I have the library to thank for that.

The Motivational Factor

Alot has been written about motivation in learning, especially in the e-learning environment. Keeping interested in learning is something that cannot really be forced. There has to be some kind of factor that keeps people chugging along with the life-long learning train. For some, this is the fear of bad marks or other sorts of failure. For my son, the motivation is seeing the big Arthur doll at the information desk, or having a bunch of staff dote over him.

For other people, the library can have a lot of motivational benefits. Love can be one. Coffee is another. A productive day on the laptop might be yet another. If the library is doing what it is supposed to be doing, you ought to want to come back time and time again. This means you are learning and liking it. Learning and liking it will make great things happen to you — you will be healthier, smarter, and a sucker less often.

So, do I believe in libraries, even in an age where the Internet is faster and references questions are becoming scarce? You betcha big time. As a citizen, I would fight to the death before letting a flippant “it’s all on the Internet” editorial destroy the reputation of the public library. It’s not all on the Internet. Anyone who says it is needs to get out [to the library] more.

2 thoughts on “The Crux of the Biscuit: Do I Believe in Libraries?

  1. What a wonderful story – that you have used quite successfully to highlight how important libraries actually are. I somewhat think that we need to continue to stress the ways that help to motivate the learning process. Of course, one of the difficult things is that adults (once they are not in school) tend to forget that learning is a life long venture. We need to make sure that the library isn’t just associated with formal learning processes. Many parents that I have talked to about this seem to think libraries are vastly important for their children – but not so much for themselves.

    I also believe in libraries and their missions. Overall, this is a fairly exciting time and we are in a unique position to try and redefine the library and its services.


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