ThinkerCon 2018 Presentation

Alex speaking at ThinkerCon at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Everyone pictured is sitting or standing right below a Saturn 5 rocket!

I spent November 15 through November 18 in Huntsville, Alabama, attending ThinkerCon. The first few days were spent talking and learning with about 100 educational content creators from all over the United States and around the world. The final night was spent at the US Space and Rocket Center, meeting and talking with 1000 people who like educational content. At 9:40 that night – right after Destin Sandlin and Matt Whitman gave a talk, and right before an amazing fireworks show – I spoke for a few minutes about how libraries are great. Here’s what I said:

Hi everyone, thanks for having me. I’m Alex Lent. I’m a librarian. I’m wearing a cardigan tonight to prove that I’m a librarian. You may be wondering why there’s a librarian at ThinkerCon. Well, I’m not the only librarian here. Peter from Stacks and Facts on YouTube is also here. Peter is also wearing a cardigan.

Some of what you hear about librarians is true. We like cardigans. We like cats. We often need glasses. We’re an excellent addition to any party. But other things you may have heard about libraries and librarians aren’t true, and that’s why I’m here tonight. I’m here to set the record straight.

A few months ago, Forbes Magazine put out an article suggesting that libraries are a waste, that we should get rid of them, and that we should replace them with Amazon Prime Stores.

These doom and gloom articles about libraries pop up from time to time. Their writers tend to underestimate the popularity of libraries. Americans visit their libraries about 1.5 billion times each year. That’s more than the annual attendance of all major league baseball, basketball, football, and hockey games combined. Libraries are incredibly popular.

That popularity led to such immediate and immense pushback that Forbes deleted the article from its website.

Libraries are popular because there’s a lot to do in libraries. I have a list here of things happening in libraries that I would like to share with you:

  1. National novel writing month write-ins
  2. Acting classes
  3. Painting classes
  4. Speedcrafting
  5. Photography clubs
  6. Book clubs
  7. Internet safety and digital literacy classes
  8. Hangouts and meetups with like-minded people
  9. Access to maker spaces with 3D printers and other tools
  10. Homeschooling support
  11. Mindfulness and meditation classes
  12. Mah Jongg
  13. Knitting circles
  14. Community forums with local political candidates
  15. Chess leagues
  16. Potluck lunches with local businesses
  17. Anime film screenings
  18. Coding classes
  19. Trivia nights

This is just a list of events happening at Huntsville’s library this weekend. Just this weekend. Just in Huntsville.

There are over 16,000 public libraries in the United States. There are more public libraries in the United States than there are McDonald’s restaurants. The average American lives just 2.1 miles from the nearest public library.

Libraries are everywhere and there’s a whole heck of a lot happening in libraries.

Libraries offer a lot more than just books. We have movies, music, magazines, and comics, as well as toys, tools, games, musical instruments, science equipment, and more. Some of the most popular items at my library are sewing machines, ukuleles, telescopes, and American Girl Dolls.

Toys are expensive, and kids grow out of them so fast. Sometimes, it makes sense to borrow a toy from a library for free, bring it home, play with it, return it when you’re done, and check out something new.

You may want to learn to play a musical instrument, but you may not want to pay for one until you’re sure you’ll like it. So borrow an instrument from the library and try it out. If you like it, you can renew it or buy your own. If you don’t like it, no problem, just bring it back.

So libraries are about more than books. But would it really be so bad if we were all about books? Books are awesome.

A recent favorite of mine is Unseen City by Nathanael Johnson. It’s about some of the species found in urban and suburban environments that we tend to ignore, like squirrels and pigeons and snails and turkey vultures, all of which are amazing in their own ways.

I borrowed it from my library, and read it in an app on my phone. For free. Not only do libraries have books and movies and music and magazines and comics and toys and tools and games and musical instruments and science equipment, we have apps too.

But the best thing libraries have is librarians.

When someone comes to my library, my job – no matter what that person is interested in – my job is to be interested in that thing too, so we can explore it together.

I am professionally curious. It’s a good gig. I know a lot of weird stuff.

For example, did you know that a single wolf can consume 20 pounds of meat in a sitting? I didn’t either, until someone came to the library and wanted to learn about wolves.

I’m not sure how much a wolf in a long term relationship can eat, but I’ll look into it. It’s my job to answer questions.

One question I get sometimes is “what does the future look like for libraries?”. I don’t have an answer to this, no one does. That’s the thing about the future. But I’m confident that there won’t be a single future for all libraries; there has to be a different future for each library because, as much as libraries are about books and about more-than-books, libraries are really about people and communities.

Every community is different, so every library needs to be different in order to meet the specific needs of its specific community. You can help define the future of your library just by using your library and talking to your librarians.

I don’t know the future or futures of libraries, but despite the doom and gloom articles that pop up from time to time, libraries are thriving. We’re busier than ever. We’re doing more than ever. We’re doing interesting, worthy work to serve our communities all across the United States and around the world.

This is a golden age for libraries. I’m excited about the future of libraries, and I’m here at ThinkerCon because I want you to be as excited about libraries as I am.

My time on stage tonight is just about over. I’d like to leave you with this: if you’ve enjoyed ThinkerCon, you’d probably love your library. And if you’re like me, and feel inspired by ThinkerCon – inspired to explore and maybe even share your interests – libraries are a good place to start.

And remember, librarians are there for you. We are professionally curious, and whatever you’re interested in, we’re interested in too.

Thank you for having me.