Reflections on the Importance of Libraries

How libraries help young children and their families flourish

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Topics: Early Childhood

In the small town where my husband and I are raising our young daughter, we don’t have museums or a zoo, but we are nevertheless enriched and supported thanks to a vibrant library.

The American Library Association (ALA) convention held in Philadelphia Jan. 24-28 offered us a chance to reflect on how libraries help young children and their families flourish. At a time when technology and other social and economic forces continuously threaten to isolate us, we have an urgent need to consider libraries’ roles in our collective future.

Children engaged during story time at library

Libraries can be an anchor in the places we live amid a rapidly shifting landscape. Our library is where our daughter interacts with other kids her age and a rare place outside the home where she has space to roam and explore. We check out books, but the library provides much more in the way of fostering children’s development and providing a social and community meeting place for all of us.

The utility of libraries came into question as the Internet emerged as a resource for instant information. Yet 30 years into the digital revolution, brick-and-mortar libraries have remained a safe space for positive interaction. The library is one of the ever-dwindling public spaces where people of all ages can gather, learn, develop relationships and exchange points of view in person.

And all the while, libraries have embraced process efficiencies afforded by technology, and many of them provide opportunities to learn about and use cutting-edge technologies. They have shown us that the choice between incorporating technology and cultivating human relationships is often a false one.

But just as libraries have forged new identities in the past, they will need to continue to do so in the future. In Foundations for Flourishing Futures, my colleagues and I teamed up with Capita to identify emerging issues for children and families in the coming decade, including a stretched social fabric that makes it harder for increasingly diverse families to navigate and access the resources they need to thrive. The declining use of libraries, playgrounds and places of worship contribute to the problem.

When we talk about the future, we talk about children. Too often, we do not recognize how the profound social, economic and technological changes underway will reshape their lives and our very understanding of what it means to be a child. Foundations for Flourishing Futures: A Look Ahead for Children and Families will help leaders across sectors navigate that gap, understand their own work in new ways and do their part to ensure that every child and family can flourish in the future.
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But the decline is not inevitable, especially if we choose to support and engage in our libraries as they adapt to meet the needs of their communities. Many of them have already expanded their offerings beyond traditional services and programming, adding makerspaces or offering homeless services. Libraries across the country are faced with choices about which community needs they should fulfill, choices that will only get more urgent as income inequality, demographic shifts and environmental volatility increase.

However libraries reinvent themselves in the future, we must begin to see them for what they are: not a nice neighborhood amenity but foundational social infrastructure. They are places where children are developing confidence and a sense of agency as they choose books, play and explore. They are places where children find caring adults, like our story-time librarian who is never too busy to greet us and give my daughter a hug. They are places where parents and caregivers can gather and connect, filling a void when extended families are often far away. At a time when so many children’s experiences are optimized toward achieving a future goal, libraries are places where children are treated not as adults in training but as full people worthy of joy and love and learning. Together, we must decide whether we want a future where libraries are flourishing, well-resourced public spaces or whether we acquiesce to the temptation to settle for private spaces that are inaccessible to many.

We have daunting challenges ahead of us to ensure future generations live productive, safe and fulfilling lives. Let’s make sure to help them reach their highest potential through providing them great libraries in which to thrive.

Get more insights into the opportunities, like those at libraries, that exist for the future of children and their families in Foundations for Flourishing Futures: A Look Ahead for Young Children and Families.