Why libraries matter more than ever

A great library is critical to our city and community.
A great library is critical to our city and community.

Our image of libraries is out of date. Libraries can do – and are doing – so much more than we realize. As we hurtle into the digital age, our reliance on access to knowledge and information grows with each passing year. As we seek to strengthen our schools and our workforce in cities like Charlotte, a great library is an enormously important institution.

Too often, we presume that libraries are less important today because of all the technology we possess.

Libraries matter more, not less, in a digital age. Terrific public libraries, such as the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, play a more connected role in our communities today than in the past. We rely on libraries more than ever for a wider array of services.

Libraries matter for their own sake. The availability of books and other materials in a wide range of formats, for anyone, whether they can pay or not, is an essential public service. The availability of safe public spaces is an essential resource in our democracy. Libraries preserve our historical, scientific and cultural record through their collections.

Libraries matter, too, because they can help accomplish the goals of the community. Librarians are some of the best teachers and most giving public servants in America. They are trained to find, create and preserve the information that is at the heart of our knowledge-based economy.

In Charlotte, community leaders organize around key issues to solve problems. Read Charlotte, a collaborative effort to grow third grade reading proficiency in Charlotte from 39 percent to 80 percent by 2025, is one example. Research shows a very strong correlation between great libraries and educational outcomes. One of the leaders in this push is the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, which is giving space in its main library for Read Charlotte and participating in many of its work groups.

The same goes for economic opportunity. Where Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are striving to increase economic mobility and job opportunities, the library is at the table with community leaders such as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, helping to find solutions.

We as citizens need to stand with our libraries. During the recent recession, libraries across the country faced closures, reduced hours, layoffs, and sharp cuts to collection budgets. Charlotte Mecklenburg Library – despite its essential community role – was one of the harder hit libraries.

The momentum in today’s Charlotte Mecklenburg Library is palpable and inspiring. With the Library Foundation working to raise funds to enhance library programs, extend services and grow an endowment, and increasing support from Mecklenburg County, the library is doing an extraordinary array of things well.

Charlotte is fortunate to have such a thriving library, embedded deeply in its community. More support is needed, though. The library’s budget to acquire books and digital resources is about half what is required to meet community demand. The space available for library usage is two-thirds of the size needed for a community of over a million people. The staff need continued support for professional growth and technology development to keep up with customer needs.

It’s the job of everyone in the community to make sure libraries have the support they need to play their essential role in a digital age. The return on that investment will be enormous.

John Palfrey is head of school at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, and chairs the board of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. He will be speaking in Charlotte at 12 p.m. on Friday at ImaginOn. You can watch a livestream of the event at