Libraries Are Still the Best Problem Solvers


Despite being a big fan of the internet and all its conveniences, I still turn to libraries when I need to solve a problem. Whether it’s learning how to do something new, or researching my next book, libraries are my “first contact.” Sure, YouTube is useful for seeing how something is actually done, and the internet as a whole is great for hitting the highlights of a subject. But if I really need to understand something in depth, it’s off the to the library I go.

I suspect I’m a minority in this. Most people live and die by the internet and consider Wikipedia a primary source of information. But there are reasons why I stand by the library. (Reasons other than I’m some sort of time traveller stuck in a time warp.)

Here’s why I still rely on the library to solve my problems.

Actual people who know stuff can help you.

Librarians are some of the greatest people, ever. They know their way around the books in their collection, and they know how to get the most out of the electronic resources. They also know where to send you if you need information they can’t provide. That kind of help is hard to find on the internet. On the web, you’re largely on your own.

You have access to academic/scientific resources.

It’s wonderful to walk into one building and have instant access to all sorts of high-quality, peer-reviewed materials from the academic and scientific communities. Sure, you can find some of them on the internet at large, but much of it is hidden behind paywalls and subscriptions. At the library, it’s all free.

It can be less frustrating than the internet because it’s stable.

A library’s collection tends to remain stable over time. Sure, they cull and add books and resources periodically, but that book you used yesterday is likely to still be there a week from now. That’s not always true on the internet. Links get moved and removed, and websites go down regularly.

Materials are less biased and sensationalized than the internet.

When the whole world seems to be assaulting and altering the truth, it’s refreshing to walk into a place that offers vetted, unbiased resources. Most things in a library aren’t there because they get the most clicks or because they bring in ad revenue. They’re there because they’ve been judged to be “best in class” by people who look for accuracy, factualness, and fairness. Sure, there are some resources that are written with a certain slant, but most libraries try to keep it fair and will include things from the “other side,” as well.

You don’t have to pay to play.

How frustrating is it to find the information you need, but when you click on it you discover that it’s behind a paywall? Perhaps your ad blocker software can defeat it, but perhaps not. Then you have to decide whether or not to pay, or try to find it elsewhere. Libraries are free. They subscribe to databases, journals, and magazines so you don’t have to.

It’s ad-free and private.

Even though I take precautions online, I’m still amazed at how little privacy I have, and how many ads still get shoved down my throat. At the library, I can browse in privacy and trust that no one is going to advertise to me, or sell my information. While some libraries do allow you to track what you’ve borrowed, they don’t sell the information, or turn it over unless forced to by a court order. (Because you were checking out books on explosives and then you went out and blew up a building, for example.) The tracking is simply for your convenience if you want to track something down again but can’t remember the exact title or author.

Not everything is on the internet.

Believe it or not, there are just some things that aren’t on the internet. Old records that are in such poor condition that they can’t even be scanned, for example. There are many old books and documents from pre-internet days have not been digitized as of yet. Some things are out of print and available only in physical form. Whatever the reason, there are just some things the internet doesn’t have.

It’s harder to “go deep” on the internet.

The thing I love about books and other physical resources is that they make it possible to fully immerse yourself in your research. After you finish one book, you can check the bibliography and find all kinds of other resources that tie into your topic. Yes, you can follow the link trail on the internet, but given that many resources are superficial, you’re not really getting much deeper into the topic. Plus, many links are dead or don’t go to what you think they go to, resulting in frustration and wasted time. And books are far less distracting than the online environment, allowing you to concentrate without ads, videos, and click-baity headlines screaming at you.

They have physical “stuff” that you can use and touch.

Aside from books, some libraries have loan programs for other things. Board games, toys, tools, cake pans, DVD’s, CD’s/records, and other things the community deems useful can often be borrowed. If saving money is your goal, it’s better to borrow that one-time needed thing from a library than ordering it off of Amazon.

In addition, larger libraries usually house some historical collections, or have rotating exhibits. If you need to see, for example, Native American beadwork up close, the library may have an exhibit. You may also find old books, manuscripts, or important papers on file. Libraries are in the business of preserving history, and often not just through books but through other local resources and artifacts that the internet doesn’t have.

The internet has its place. In many ways, I can no longer imagine life without it. I don’t hate the internet. But I do love libraries and I still think they’re the best places to go when you need to do deep research or solve a problem. Brand me a Luddite if you must.

(Photo courtesy of Sebas Ribas)

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