Secondary Purposes, or Why E-Books Can’t Replace a Library

It started with my boss worrying about the future of the library as a viable structure again. It’s not the first time, it won’t be the last, and I’m pretty sure the fear is unfounded, but it got me thinking about why I’m so sure the library isn’t on the way out. And that why, it turned out, based itself in a simple and potentially useful concept: that just because something has a primary purpose doesn’t mean that’s its only use.

Yes, primary purposes are most of what determines what’s going on with a place, or a concept, or a new technology. Restaurants are for eating at. Libraries are where the books are. Fire fighters… you get the idea. But there are plenty of other uses for these places.

One use is as staging areas for something else. I’ve seen this a lot—schools being adapted into polling places or used to house test prep classes in the evenings, churches doubling as relief shelters. Heck, when I worked for the Census, I had one orientation session in a church, two meetings in a library, and before that had taken my qualifying exam at a local college during standard class hours (tricky parking and all). Usually, this happens while the primary purpose isn’t going on, but if the two locations are separate enough (a conference room from the main library, unused classrooms, etc) it’s possible to do both at once.

Another is a deliberately chosen secondary purpose—the designer figured “And while I’m at it, this set of features can help with this purpose, so let’s facilitate that a little.” Consider, for instance, the tendency of the cafe to double as a wireless hotspot; their managers realized early on (or discovered from their competitors’ example) that if one were to set up wireless, not only would it bring people in and cause them to buy something in order to assuage their feelings of guilt (if applicable) at mooching off of the free wireless, but those who were hanging out all day with their computers might get hungry and buy something else, and they’d certainly make the place look busier even if they weren’t increasing the actual business level. So “wireless hotspot” became a secondary purpose.

Then there are the purposes that aren’t planned for so much as happen on their own. The music room at your average high school, for instance, is designed for students to play music in. But then external factors come into play; the fact that band kids and/or choir kids tend to get along best with each other anyway, the room being a nice large open place but closed off enough to be useful… and next thing you know, half the music department is taking their lunches in there and generally hanging out, since nobody’s using it and the teacher didn’t say no or lock the place.

Where’s the library come in, since that gave me the idea? It’s simple. Even if one assumes that e-books are going to replace dead-tree format the way DVDs replaced cassettes (which I consider an apples to oranges comparison, but that’s another rant entirely), storing books is only one of the things the library does. Take mine. It isn’t just about distributing books, DVDs, and Playaways to as many people as possible even if they can’t afford to frequent the bookstore every week, and providing a centralized location for the Commandant’s Reading List materials. It’s also about providing Internet, scanners, copies and occasionally fax service to people who don’t have the necessary equipment at home, and having staff members on hand who can help explain the intricacies when the patrons aren’t sure how to use them. It’s a quiet place to do homework that isn’t home, possibly even to ask one of the employees for assistance. Heck, for people who are a bit more concerned with the needs of the body, it’s a source of inexpensive coffee, cheap snacks, and those all-important restrooms on an otherwise impersonal parade ground boundary. And that’s not even taking into account its uses as a social meeting place, particularly among those who don’t want to deal with the noise levels of the standard coffee house. Most libraries carry at least some subset of the above uses; mine may be particularly specialized, for all I know. But as long as people want personal contact to go with their lack of prices, as long as the materials are wanted (and they will be, as long as people still crave the book experience), as long as income differences mean that not everyone can afford personal electronics—and all right, as long as there is a source of funding—there will always be libraries in some form or other.

Secondary purposes: a source of interest, a way to cement the necessity of a certain location within its setting, and generally fun in their own right. Do you take them into account?

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