The short answer to the question of why libraries still matter is this: Not everything is available on the Internet, especially the free, legal Internet.
You won't find most recent books, most magazine and journal articles, or back issues of most newspapers and magazines. Fee-based search services such as LexisNexis (www.lexisnexis.com) can help. Illegal "pirate" sites and BitTorrent services, on the other hand, can get you in trouble and are just plain wrong.
Sometimes you need a library, and sometimes you need the services of a librarian.
It's true that there's a lot of material on the Internet. At the time of this writing, the Internet included more than 920 million active web sites, according to Netcraft (www.netcraft.com). Google claims to have indexed nearly 20 billion webpages.
But libraries can be pretty big, too. The British Library, the world's largest, contains 150 million items. The Library of Congress in Washington, DC, is about the same size. The New York Public Library, in third place, is about a third as large.
Even with small community libraries, you'll find books and other materials you won't find online.
It's also true that information keeps growing. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has been quoted as saying, "There were five exabytes of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003. But that much information is now created every two days, and the pace is increasing." An exabyte is one followed by eighteen zeros. Some believe that Schmidt was conservative in his estimates.
But it's not just about the quantity of information. According to James Gleick's book The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, sometimes the sheer amount of information compromises wisdom and the trivial overwhelms the meaningful. Data needs to become information, information needs to become knowledge, and knowledge needs to become wisdom.
This is one way in which librarians can help. They can help you figure out the best sources of information, says Jessamyn West, author of the blog Librarian.net and community technology educator in Randolph, Vermont.
"Libraries are essential to the idea of a functioning democracy. If you trust people to vote, they need access to unbiased impartial information and public space available for contemplation of those things," West told me in an email interview. "America needs public spaces for community cohesion, unfettered by people trying to sell you something."
Librarians can also get to know you, says West. They can thus tailor your search according to your personal informational needs, whether based on the job you have, the town or city you live in, or your family situation, and they can do this better than a set of computerized algorithms.
Much here has to do with overcoming the mindset that more is better. You can always find more websites, blogs, wikis, online discussion group posts, Twitter tweets, Facebook posts, newspaper and magazine articles, newsletters, white papers, reports, books, and so on.
Using the conscious mind to try to uncover more and more information, according to information scientists, can thwart the involvement of the subconscious mind in decisions about what to do with that information. The goal shouldn't be sheer information accumulation but making the best possible organizational, family, or personal decisions using that information.
Creative thinking and sound judgment are needed. This necessitates integrating new information you uncover with the existing information you have to discover connections and patterns. Intuition and emotion can be just as important here as reason and logic.
After you find the best sources of information for your purposes, allow for serendipity, for hearing the unheard and seeing the unforeseen. Opening a book randomly can take you to the unexpected, the useful, and the uplifting.
Despite its newfangled digital trappings, information overload isn't a new problem. In the eighteenth century, the English poet Alexander Pope lamented the "deluge of authors cover[ing] the land."
Going back far further, the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, "What is the use of having countless books and libraries, whose titles their owners can scarcely read through in a whole lifetime? The learner is not instructed but burdened by the mass of them, and it is much better to surrender yourself to a few authors than to wander through many."
Some local and state governments, facing pressure to reduce taxes, have cut library budgets. But according to a Pew Research Center Library Services Study, 90% of Americans feel that the closing of their local public library would damage their community and 67% feel it would affect them and their families.
Reid Goldsborough is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.