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Reimagining the public library

It's not just about books, but it will always be about knowledge.

Elliot L. Shelkrot
Elliot L. ShelkrotRead more

By Elliot L. Shelkrot

Industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie told us "there is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library." Libraries have always been central to our lives. After 41 years as a librarian, people ask me if libraries are still relevant in the age of the Internet. They forget the Internet - for all its power - is just the latest, fastest way to access information invented so far. It is a tool made even more powerful by librarians.

Libraries and librarians are the original information brokers. The dissemination of knowledge is our business, whether the data is contained in books, DVDs or megabytes. In the age of the Internet, librarians are more necessary than ever.

The information explosion, now driven by technology, continues to expand exponentially the facts, statistics, research, ideas and sources available. The overwhelmed user soon realizes that the quantity of available information on the net bears no relationship to its quality or reliability. The real challenge is finding the right information quickly. That is precisely where librarians' skills always shine. According to Craig Silverstein, director of technology for, it may be "300 years before computers are as good as your local reference library."

Across the country, libraries of the future are becoming magnets for community activity and economic development. More and more they are gathering places for collaborative learning, with idea- and information-rich children's and teen centers and centers for content creation. The sound "shhhhhhh" will seldom be heard in these halls.

The planned expansion of the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway will make it the city's main laboratory for personal learning, discovery and development. Within the sparkling glass walls of Central's new addition and the restored majesty of the Beaux Arts building, the environment of engagement and collaboration already bubbling in the library will thrive.

Energetic entrepreneurs come to research and launch business plans; the world's top authors make this a "must" stop on the lecture circuit; students come for help in preparing for SATs; job seekers attend workshops on resume preparation. Book lovers (yes, we are still around) can check out their favorite novel or biography. The digital generation can download to their MP3 players books and music that "self destruct" on their due date. Students can create PowerPoint and other digital presentations for class projects. And the library will continue to be a learning rich, safe haven after school.

The Free Library is the largest provider of free Internet services in the region. And now anyone with a library card can access exclusive databases 24/7 from home or come into any library branch for free wireless connections with a new Internet Café opening at the Central Library in just a few weeks.

Libraries must see themselves as cornerstones of the knowledge economy. Today's librarians are high tech information hunters, some of the most tech-savvy employees in the knowledge industry.

As I leave the Free Library system, a new and diverse generation of young librarians is bringing enthusiasm and creativity to the task of serving our customers and reaching new audiences. They are holding gaming nights at the branches to attract the new generation of youngsters. Research is beginning to demonstrate the power of computer games in the learning process. I daresay librarians are "hip"; librarians were dubbed one of this year's hottest occupations by U.S. News and World Report.

The Central Library, at 80, is one of the greatest information disseminators in America. We are more than halfway to the goal of our capital campaign that will give Philadelphia the world class, 21st-century, multimedia, technology-driven information treasure it deserves. Go to the library; see what a difference a century has made. It's not only about books anymore, but it will always be about the ideas, information and inspiration they contain.