Before We Had “The Google,” We Had “The Library”—and Libraries Are Still Awesome

by Greg Prestemon

Google is pretty great.

Married couples no longer need to have endless “debates” about some completely useless piece of trivia. Disagree with your wife about who won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1991?

You say it was The Godfather, Part III; she says it was Dances with Wolves.

Now, you don’t need to wait before you get told how wrong you are (as I frequently am).

The whole cycle of disagreement-argument-resolution happens as fast as the person who thinks he or she is right can wrestle an enormous phone out of their pocket. Even for someone my age, it’s hard to remember how we settled arguments before Google.

Still, I remember how I learned new stuff growing up in a small town in Iowa, pre-Google, pre-smartphone.

I went to the library.

I learned to love reading at the library—and I got to live out my fantasy of killing a bear, Davy Crockett style, without ever risking the certain death that would have come with young Greg Prestemon trying his hand at bear hunting.

But libraries are more than just an important part of past.

Lately, a lot of economists, including a Northwestern economist named Robert J. Gordon, have taken a second look at some of the modern developments we think of as truly earth-shattering innovations.

Tools like the iPhone or apps like Snapchat and Airbnb get a lot of press for being innovative—and they are. I, for one, would have no idea how to cope with a constant stream of horrific news if I couldn’t dull the pain with cute Snapchat filters.

While Snapchat has its place, Robert J. Gordon and a growing number of his colleagues believe most early 21st-century innovation pales in comparison with early 20th-century innovation. In other words, a filter that makes your face look like an onion is no match for indoor plumbing, antibiotics, automobiles, or the public library.

Yes, the public library was an important innovation that significantly altered American society and changed the nation’s economy. And while libraries existed well before the early 20th century, between 1899 and 1919 steel magnate Andrew Carnegie built 1,689 libraries in the United States. Carnegie also built 660 more in the United Kingdom and Ireland, 125 in Canada, and more in multiple nations across the world.

Carnegie’s contributions in the United States did two things:

  1. They made learning accessible to anyone who could get themselves to the library.
  2. Libraries, along with the growth of public education, established the United States as a country built on knowledge and learning.

I’m a big fan of the library—and that’s one of many reasons why I’m so proud to live and work here in St. Charles County.

We have an awesome library system.

In fact, Hennen’s American Public Library Ratings ranked the St. Charles City-County Library District third in the nation for districts serving populations between 250,000 and 500,000.

In the age of Google and smartphones, where you can end even the most trivial argument in seconds, it can be easy to dismiss the value of a strong library system.

That would be a mistake. If you’ve ever been to a library in our county, you know business is usually booming. Yes, libraries get used because a lot of hardworking people can’t afford to purchase a book on their smartphone or at Barnes & Noble.

However, libraries have also become a hub of multimedia learning—and a great place to get work done without the rampant consumerism one must endure to enjoy the free Wi-Fi at a certain coffee chain. More than anything, though, libraries are a statement about the type of place a community wants to be.

Do you want to build your business in a community that values knowledge? Do you want to live in a community that believes learning should be accessible to anyone?

St. Charles County is that community.

That’s one reason I love it here.

That’s one reason why you’ll love it here (if you don’t already call STC home).

And that’s one reason why you should think about moving (or starting) your business here.

Greg Prestemon is President and CEO of the St. Charles County EDC Business and Community Partners.