It’s Time to Change Our Perception of Libraries

April 23, 2015

Something amazing is happening in our public libraries.

What was once simply a place to read books and conduct research has evolved into a full-fledge idea factory, business incubator lab, job search central, meeting place, and an all-around hub of economic activity, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Yes, our public libraries are still home to vast collections of wonderful books of all varieties – and we treasure them for that. But ushered with the dawn of the digital age and an ongoing commitment to best meet the changing needs of the communities they serve, today’s public libraries reflect the dynamic and exciting realities of our lives as citizens of a democracy where free market capitalism thrives.

At their core, libraries are an ultimate physical manifestation of democracy and the ideals so eloquently outlined in our Constitution. They provide free access to information and knowledge – and the potential of that can be liberating, empowering and positive beyond our wildest expectations. Our libraries have and continue to be social places, too – to meet a friend, have a play date, listen to a guest speaker, or even strike up conversation with a stranger.

What we are now increasingly seeing is that public libraries have become a go-to location for business professionals to hold meetings, for tinkerers to create prototypes of their latest inventions using a 3-D printer, for job seekers to gain access to resources and network, and a myriad of other exciting uses from people of all walks of life. Before our very eyes, and quite possibly without us even noticing, public libraries have become a central part of our economy, workforce development and, generally, an establishment that nourishes the entrepreneurial spirit that is at the heart of every successful business.

Disturbingly, our libraries have fallen victim to our state government’s financial mismanagement and found themselves, along with many others, on the proverbial chopping block in an attempt to close a billion dollar deficit. While our current and projected fiscal reality calls for intense scrutiny of every dollar spent, cutting funding to our public libraries at any level of government is short-sighted and, in my opinion, indicative of a fundamental lack of understanding and vision about just how important our public libraries are – to our communities and to our state’s economic health.

Perhaps this is, in part, due to libraries not promoting themselves enough and failing to effectively articulate to legislators and the public the very real economic impact they have. Maybe we all share some of that responsibility – after all, the libraries are ours.

I, for one, am fighting for a full restoration of funds for our public libraries. I am also engaging in the more important battle to ensure the future viability and longevity of these beloved institutions.

Toward that end, we must change our perception of the public library. They are not an intellectual luxury or some elitist, dusty old building filled with books. They are a living, breathing entity that is inextricably linked to every facet of our lives and helping to usher in a new grassroots level of economic development and social enrichment.

Public libraries do not just tell us who we are and the way we once were; if you look closely the next time you’re at your public library, you may just get a glimpse into the future – all of ours.

State Senator Tony Hwang is in his 4th term in the Connecticut General Assembly and 1st term as State Senator of the 28th District, which encompasses Fairfield, Easton, Newtown and portions of Weston and Westport. Senator Hwang is the ranking leader in the Housing and Labor & Public Employees committees and a member of Commerce and Veterans Affairs committees during the 2015-16 legislative sessions. He is also a member of the CT Innovation Life Sciences Business/Government Group and co-chair of the bipartisan General Assembly Bioscience Caucus.