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Editorial: Libraries see opportunity in changing times

Interior view West Town Branch Library 1625 W. Chicago. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

Interior view of the West Town Branch Library at 1625 W. Chicago. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: July 5, 2013 2:26PM

Not so long ago, we thought libraries were doomed.

Libraries were about books, and it didn’t take an Einstein to see that books were on life support. Books were paper and the world was going digital. Even when people read books in the future, they would read ebooks, and who needs a bunch of shelves for that?

How wrong we were. And what an inspiring example libraries are setting for those of us in other professions — the media, the entertainment business, the law, the financial markets, the you-name-it — being turned upside down by technological change.

Libraries still like books, which is nice because so do we. But as reporter and columnist Neil Steinberg reported in the Sun-Times this weekend, the best libraries are centers of a new cultural flowering in which ever-changing new technology is less a threat than an opportunity.

Libraries are where folks go to search online for jobs, where kids hang out after school and play games (and sometimes study), where artists display their work, where book clubs and community groups meet, where college study groups bend over laptops and books in soundproof rooms, where (in the case of the Harold Washington Library in Chicago) you can slip into another room at lunchtime and play the piano or practice the violin, where folks take classes in tech instruction for, say, Twitter or Pinterest, where businesses make professional-quality videos, and where you can still get books, paper format optional.

Libraries are social gathering spots (sure beat the mall) and business hubs. They’ve figured out that their job is to help the rest of us get a grip on the information revolution.

For all of that, the number of libraries in the United States since 1989 has been flat even as the population has grown.

But, we would argue, not for lack of purpose and need.

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