In Our View: Another Win for Franklin

Founding Father sired libraries, whose value remains high in digital age



It has a been a pretty good couple of weeks for Benjamin Franklin.

Thursday we celebrated the Fourth of July in honor of the United States’ independence — a monumental occurrence in which Franklin played a slightly more than significant role. And a couple weeks ago, we had a research survey that suggests libraries remain relevant even for young adults.

Franklin might be best remembered today as one of the nation’s Founding Fathers — well, that and the kite-flying thing — but he also helped shape American society by essentially inventing the library. That was 282 years ago, and since then libraries have endured and survived. Witness the 16 local branches available through the Fort Vancouver Regional Library system, a number that includes a pristine main branch that opened in downtown Vancouver in 2011.

According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, libraries are well-positioned to continue to thrive. In the age of the Internet and e-books and vast changes in the way we consume information, this might sound a little surprising.

Digital media is transforming the fashion in which Americans — and people throughout the world — become informed. At a time when deep thoughts and meaningful events typically are reduced to conform with Twitter’s 140-character limit, it would be understandable if the populous was turning away from the thought-provoking tomes that can be found in libraries.

But the Pew survey has discovered that is not the case. People in their late teens and their 20s were found to have visited a library just as frequently as older Americans in the previous year. And nearly two-thirds of younger adults said they had a library card. About three-fourths of those ages 16 to 29 said it was crucial that libraries offer books to borrow, and just as many said the same about free access to computers and the Internet.

“Younger Americans don’t seem to be radically different from older adults in their conception of the library,” Pew research analyst Kathryn Zickuhr was quoted as saying by the Los Angeles Times. “They think libraries should have books. They think libraries should have librarians. They think libraries should have quiet spaces.”

We agree on all counts. Reading more than 140 characters at a time is essential to developing an informed and intelligent and thoughtful populace. That, after all, was Franklin’s goal when he first formed a book-sharing group that eventually morphed into the original library.

As author Joyce Carol Oates once said: “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”

Which, at a quick glance, would appear to be a dying art. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are going the way of the Dodo bird as consumers turn increasingly to online purchases but, according to the Pew survey, that doesn’t mean people aren’t reading. The survey revealed that 82 percent of young adults had read at least one book in the previous year — a higher percentage than among older adults.

That is good news for libraries and, therefore, hopeful news for the future of the nation. Nearly 300 later, we’re still living up to what Benjamin Franklin had envisioned.