There’s a phrase I’ve been hearing people use a lot recently. It has to do with the ever-expanding services offered by libraries — everything from makerspaces to coding classes to career assistance. What people say is this: “Libraries are now about more than just books.” 

I have a problem with that sentence, “Libraries are now about more than just books.” Every time I hear it, what I hear is “books aren’t really that important.” Then the follow-up thought in my mind is: “I guess this other stuff the library is doing is way more exciting.” It makes the value of books seem so very small and perhaps even irrelevant. 

This shrinking away from books is misguided because I really love books. I think an organization like the library, full of books and dedicated to reading, is one of the best ideas we humans have come up with.  

I also think books can do amazing things for us — they are these little packages of opportunity. It might seem like all a reader is doing is enjoying stories, but in reality, they are opening themselves up to new ideas, seeing the world through new lenses, and being exposed to new ways of understanding their fellow human beings. To me, that’s the opposite of irrelevance. It’s powerful and full of potential. 

So what I wish we would do instead of saying that “libraries are about more than just books” is put them right at the center of what libraries offer. Because pretty much everything a library does can be strengthened by the addition of books. A few examples: 

  • In every makerspace, we also need books that spark creativity because we need to inspire people who are good at imagining new solutions. 
  • In every learn-to-code class, we also need biographies of scientists who changed the world because we need to support people who think deeply about the impact they can have for the better. 
  • In our social gathering spaces, we have the perfect opportunity to bring people together around books because books are a great way to share windows into other people’s experiences, helping us all learn and grow. 

I hope we can stop saying that libraries are more than books. Of course they are; they always have been. But the existence of those other services doesn’t mean that books are any less important. It’s just the opposite. 

Maybe instead we can talk about how much MORE libraries are able to do BECAUSE of the books in their collection. Building on the strong foundation of books, they add programs and services and add physical spaces for bringing it all together. With the end result being a place that is STILL about books but made even better because of all the extras added in. 

This post has been modified from its original use at the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction Virtual Celebration.    

Danielle Borasky is the Vice President of NoveList. She is currently reading You Look Like a Thing and I Love You by Janelle Shane.