Random and Slightly Irreverent Thoughts on the Word “Library”

According to Merriam-Webster, a library is “a place in which literary, musical, artistic, or reference materials (such as books, manuscripts, recordings, or films) are kept for use but not for sale.” I think we can all agree that the term “library” no longer adequately describes what we are, especially as it relates to public libraries. Sure, we have books and reference materials. Some of us also have films and artistic materials. But we are so much more than just a “library” as defined above.

So why are we still calling ourselves libraries? The term “library” itself comes from the Latin “liber,” meaning book. If we are more than just books (and we are!), why limit how our patrons see us with our name? (Patrons, users, customers – that’s another issue altogether!)

We say that we are more than just books, that we have become community centers. So if we are going to be a community center, then let’s call ourselves that. Let’s embrace what is, instead of what was. According to Merriam-Webster, a community center is “a building or group of buildings for a community’s educational and recreational activities.”

Doesn’t that sound more like what we are?

Chalkboard with "the next step" written on it and footprints on boardBut I know that totally divorcing ourselves from the term “library” would be too abrupt, so I propose we combine the terms: library and community center. Disappointingly, I am not the first person with this idea, which severely restricts my ability to trademark the phrase.

Some organizations are already calling themselves library and community centers. In New Orleans, the Rosa F. Keller Library and Community Center is a partnership between the New Orleans Public Library and the Broadmoor Improvement Association. While I would love to give you more information on how this partnership works, the website is not forthcoming with information.

[Sadly, like many library websites, it is not well-designed. Did I mention that we offer training on what your website should include? For instance, tomorrow Laura Solomon is presenting “Work with What You’ve Got: Practical Tips for Redesigning Your Library Website” at 2 p.m. CT, 3 p.m. ET. Register for the live webinar or to receive a link to the recording. I’m not calling you out; I’m just suggesting that we could all use this training.]

There’s also the Kraemer Library and Community Center in Plain, Wisconsin; the Embudo Valley Library and Community Center in New Mexico; the Newport Library and Community Center in Newport, Minnesota; the Emma L. Andrews Library and Community Center in Newburyport, Massachusetts; and the Magnolia Library and Community Center in Gloucester, Massachusetts. In 2017, the trustees of the Highgate (Vermont) Public Library officially changed the name to Highgate Library and Community Center.

As far as I can tell, none of these organizations are doing anything more or less than what public libraries throughout Florida are doing.

And while I know that the term “library and community center” is long, unless someone can come up with a cool, short name that everyone knows means “library and community center,” I think it’s the best option we have.

And, who knows, a few years down the road, maybe we could delete the term “library” altogether.

[Oh, no, she didn’t!]

After all, other non-library organizations are co-opting the term “library” for themselves. For instance, did you know that Little Free Libraries have nothing to do with libraries? And that if an actual library wants to start a Little Free Library, they need to pay for the privilege of calling it a Little Free Library? Yep.

And the Human Library? Not a real library. Well, duh, of course, it isn’t, but it wasn’t even started by a librarian. It does have one librarian on its board, I think. But if you want to have a Human Library event, you have to request permission. That’s right – permission.

I’m not saying that either of these two organizations are not great – they are! Getting books into more hands and getting humans to listen and learn from each other are excellent goals. But why did they have to steal our word? (Yes, I’m whining.)

Now they’re even stealing our ideas. (More whining.) The Chicago Tool Library will open in July to loan out sewing machines, slow cookers, power drills, and more to the Bridgeport neighborhood. But there’s a catch — there is an annual membership fee, based on your income. Granted, they say that members who cannot pay will still be allowed to check out tools. Sure, until the third time you’re late bringing back a staple gun and your fine is too high to pay so no more tools for you!

My main point is that we should embrace our image as community centers, call ourselves library and community centers, and use this to maintain and increase funding. Even those public officials who persist in believing that “everything is freely available on the internet so we don’t need libraries” can get behind funding for a library and community center.

5 thoughts on “Random and Slightly Irreverent Thoughts on the Word “Library”

  1. PLAN is so woke. Hurray! I love this conversation. Indeed, I have the same talk with a variety of people every day and when I am not talking about it, I am just doing it, i.e., being a popup mobile book-based community center. (Currently I have a strong disaster-recovery, resilience-building, pro-compassion theme going on here in the Bay County neighborhoods.) I am totally ready for the moment when we start talking openly about our individual, radical, changing identities. While I love the word LIBRARY with a passion beyond reason, I am living solidly in the Palaces for the People camp.

  2. One of our branches has the title library and community center. We get a lot of questions asking where the “community center” part is and we have a whole second floor that is open space for flexible use! And of course, we also do all the community center type things.
    Did anyone see the Reddit thread where one 20 something discovered libraries are free?
    Love the post!

  3. I both love and hate “Learning Resource Center.” This term has been used for many years by some educational institutions. It is a bit cold, but does encompass the broader offerings that are available now at our libraries. Maybe “Community Resource Center.” ? Doesn’t sound very inclusive or “educational”, does it? Words are funny, fickle things. I give up. 😉

Leave a Reply