National Library Week highlights the role of libraries in our digital age


Let's be honest; there's really never a bad time to celebrate libraries, or to take some time to consider the role that the local library plays in the public life of a community. On the other hand, it's nice to have a week — or even more — on the calendar to put public libraries in the spotlight.

In Canada, for example, Library Month is observed each October — which is the same month in which the UK celebrates its own Libraries Week.

In the United States, April 7 to 13, 2024, is National Library Week, which the American Library Association (ALA) describes as "an annual celebration highlighting the valuable role libraries, librarians, and library workers play in transforming lives and strengthening our communities".

A public library offers "unexpected and beautiful things"

This year's Honorary Chair of National Library Week is author Meg Medina, who touts the "adventures and opportunities" that libraries provide and unlock for their patrons:

Libraries connect our communities and enrich our lives in ways we may not realize, and one of my greatest pleasures is discovering the unexpected and beautiful things libraries offer. From book groups to lending sports equipment to providing a safe after-school hangout space and so much more, libraries support us wherever we find ourselves on the roadmap through life’s journey.

In that spirit, let's take a look at four of the most important roles libraries play:

  • acting as a community hub

  • supporting diversity

  • providing access to technology and digital resources

  • promoting intellectual freedom

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Libraries are vital community hubs


Citing sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s 2019 book Palaces for the People, we have made the case before that public libraries are critical social infrastructure.

As Stacey A. Aldrich, state librarian of Hawaii and director of the state's 51-branch public library system, recently told PressReader, the role of librarians has evolved far beyond being merely keepers of knowledge. "Librarians are dedicated to their communities and are adapting as we continue to create human connections to our collective stories and each other," Aldrich said.

Today's librarians continue to provide access to books, of course, but they are also able to help library users with a wide range of needs, from providing resources for small business development to connecting patrons with information on mental health issues.

Many libraries also help foster a creative and innovative society by making library space available for community engagement and recreation — think of everything from book clubs to media labs and maker spaces.

Libraries connect people from all walks of life

In democratic societies, community libraries stand as bastions of diversity, serving library users of all cultural backgrounds and abilities. In recent years, many public libraries have risen to challenge in a number of ways, from helping to preserve Indigenous languages and cultural heritage to teaching media literacy to underserved communities.

As Matt Finch writes: "[L]ibraries are innately subversive institutions born of the radical notion that every single member of society deserves free, high quality access to knowledge and culture.”

Libraries can create an inclusive space and promote multiculturalism in their communities by ensuring their collections and resources reflect the diversity of their patrons. PressReader is a great example; with publications from over 120 countries in more than 60 different languages, it allows users to read their favorite content from home and from around the world.

Branches can host cultural workshops and programs that showcase the traditions, art, music and literature of various cultures; they can also tap into the knowledge and lived experience of community members by hosting a "living library" event, such as the type presented by the Human Library Organization. Talking to folks from various backgrounds is a great way to build bridges between communities, challenge our assumptions and shatter stereotypes.

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Libraries are bastions of intellectual freedom

On April 8, which is Right to Read Day of National Library Week, the ALA will unveil its highly anticipated list of the top 10 most challenged books in the United States.

The past couple of years have seen libraries come under fire in a rising tide of book bans and challenges, and 2023 was one of the worst yet. In a recent press release, the ALA revealed that the number of books targeted for censorship surged 65% in 2023 compared to the year before, reaching the highest levels ever documented. The ALA's numbers show efforts to censor 4,240 unique book titles in schools and libraries, topping the previous high from 2022, when 2,571 unique titles were targeted for censorship. 

“Each demand to ban a book is a demand to deny each person’s constitutionally protected right to choose and read books that raise important issues and lift up the voices of those who are often silenced," said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. "By joining initiatives like Unite Against Book Bans and other organizations that support libraries and schools, we can end this attack on essential community institutions and our civil liberties."

ALA President Emily Drabinski pointed out that the would-be censors are targeting books by and about people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.

"Our communities and our country are stronger because of diversity," Drabinski said. "Libraries that reflect their communities' diversity promote learning and empathy that some people want to hide or eliminate. Libraries are vital institutions to each and every community in this country, and library professionals, who have dedicated their lives to protecting our right to read, are facing threats to their employment and well-being." 

Access to information and a free exchange of ideas


Barack Obama understands the crucial part public libraries play, not just in holding the world's cumulative knowledge, but in protecting democracy. Last July, Obama wrote an open letter to the librarians of America in July, thanking them for their dedication to defending intellectual freedom.

In that letter, Obama argued that, "In any democracy, the free exchange of ideas is an important part of making sure that citizens are informed, engaged and feel like their perspectives matter."

The former POTUS noted that librarians are "on the front lines — fighting every day to make the widest possible range of viewpoints, opinions, and ideas available to everyone. Your dedication and professional expertise allow us to freely read and consider information and ideas, and decide for ourselves which ones we agree with."

The cultural importance of librarians, Obama wrote, extends far beyond their time-honored role as custodians of books and other library resources:

You also provide spaces where people can come together, share ideas, participate in community programs, and access essential civic and educational resources. Together, you help people become informed and active citizens, capable of making this country what they want it to be.

Technology in the public library


Aldrich told PressReader that providing access to technology and digital resources is part of the ongoing evolution of the role of libraries:

Although our profession is one of constant adaptation to the needs of our communities, our core remains. We collect and connect communities to information, ideas and each other, but how we do it is constantly morphing. Librarians continue to learn new skills to adapt to ever-changing needs of their communities. One simple example is technology. In the 1990s, public libraries were on the forefront of teaching people how to use computers and the internet, which is now called digital literacy skills. Librarians learned new skills to ensure that their patrons could connect to the world, and they continue to learn and provide access to emerging technologies.

Around the world, libraries continue to bridge the digital divide for many users — including those in rural areas and those experiencing homelessness — by providing internet access and the use of desktop computers.

Modern libraries also cater to the evolving needs of today's tech-savvy society (and those of Gen Z and millennial patrons in particular) with a vast array of digital resources, including eBooks, audiobooks, databases and digital news platforms like PressReader.

This allows users to access a wide range of materials from anywhere, at any time, with just a public library card and an internet connection.

As new technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual and augmented reality emerge, librarians actively participate in adapting them to enhance library services and keep their institution relevant for future generations of patrons.

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