Debby Abe at the Olympian and the Tacoma News Tribune had a great piece on our local library systems over the weekend. It focussed on how libraries are moving beyond their traditional (for lack of a better term) as sources of reading material, to being directly engaged in the needs of patrons.
From being tech centers to sources of information on employment, libraries are becoming active participants in their communities.
Great article, over all. But, it was punctuated by two unfortunate comments that I have to address:
Technology is creating a new “digital divide,” says Michael Crose, Timberland Regional Library’s interim executive director.
“It is now possible for many of us to find the news, take classes at all levels of education, and work from home. We are facing the possibility of laying our social skills aside and living in isolation,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Olympian.
“I believe that the public library can be the new town square, the commons where we can all come together and share the stimulating opportunity of interacting with our friends, neighbors and strangers in a neutral and safe environment.”
“People have really turned into themselves and are very solitary. They’re communicating on blogs and Facebook, but they don’t see people face to face,” said Mary Getchell, spokeswoman for the Pierce County system.
“People are yearning for this community center. … We heard, ‘Where better to have this community center than the library?’”
I completely understand the need for community and building social capitol. Bowling Alone was one of the books that turned me around on politics. But, the easy blame of the internet and social media especially, is troubling.
I blame social isolation over the past 50 years more on the advent of television, cheap gas and the corresponding housing decisions drove people away from each other. Social capital has been decreasing since the 1950s and it wasn’t because everyone was on Facebook.
In the past ten years, it has been internet social media (better land use planning and walkable neighborhoods) that have started rebuilding social capital. Presidential campaigns have been built on it, and while the internet can be an escape for some, it is an unparalleled tool for creating social connections and simply getting things done that were never possible before.
So, blaming social media for isolation and proposing the library as a brick-and-mortar solution seems to ignore how libraries can use social media for their mission. I’m not sure where to go if you pose the situation as technology being the problem and the library as the answer.