It's difficult not to see libraries as barometers for civic and intellectual health: they're public places that celebrate learning, knowledge, self-improvement, and – perhaps most crucially in this digital era – getting out of the house and actually doing something amid other members of one's community.
But there is much (reasonable) hand-wringing over the future of libraries, particularly as public funding starts to dry up and big publishers engage libraries in a death match over the use of e-books. Central to the libraries-are-dying thesis: the Internet in general (and Google and other search engines, specifically) will kill libraries, as young people become increasingly and exclusively dependent upon their smart phones as the source of all information, ala the all-knowing Star Trek computer.
That said: A recent Pew Internet & American Life Project study suggests that there are reasons for hope. A survey of 2,252 Americans ages 16 and above looked in particular at the answers provided by 16-to-29-year-olds and found:
-- "Americans under age 30 are just as likely as older adults to visit the library, and once there they borrow print books and browse the shelves at similar rates."
-- "Large majorities of those under age 30 say it is “very important” for libraries to have librarians as well as books for borrowing, and relatively few think that libraries should automate most library services, move most services online, or move print books out of public areas."
-- "Three-quarters (75%) of younger Americans say they have read at least one book in print in the past year, compared with 64% of adults ages 30 and older." (To be fair: younger Americans are far more likely to have been compelled by teachers or professors to read books in print for class.)
-- "Younger patrons are also significantly more likely than those ages 30 and older to use the library as a study or 'hang out' space."
Youth support for libraries is helpful to the cause; the institutions' willingness to change with the times inspires hope. E-books and videos are part of the story, but the evolution goes beyond that – some libraries are loaning out tools, a practice that seems odd on the face of it, but makes sense as a way for a community to effectively pool and share resources. (And if trimming a tall tree for the first time on your own isn't educational, I don't know what is.)
The fight for the future of libraries is far from over, but that it's a fight at all (and a spirited one, at that) is a good sign for those rooting for them to survive.