Oleg Kagan
Aug 2, 2018 · 4 min read
Is this the only way we can see libraries?

Reading articles about libraries on a near-daily basis, I can’t help but notice that the images most often chosen to represent libraries are a shelf of books.

Here’s a similar photo, but taken at an artistic angle:

Book shelf with perspective. So art!

Occasionally there’s even a person, but unless the article is about the new town librarian, they’re anonymous:

An unnamed library elf keeping the books neat and orderly.

Don’t misunderstand, there’s nothing wrong with books, or libraries having books — I love books. What I don’t love is that these images of books and bookshelves represent the limited way in which the media thinks about libraries even when they specifically say otherwise. For example, check out this 2014 article from Smithsonian Magazine, entitled “Libraries Are Great at Lending All Sorts of Things — Not Just Books” and this 2017 In the Bay piece called “Public Libraries: More Than Just a Book Lending Service.” Both of these delightful articles about how libraries are more than books lead with images of, yes, you guessed it, bookshelves! It makes no sense, but it happens all the time!

So what type of photos should media outlets use to represent libraries? Well, to start how about some more active images — pictures of people doing something. Nobody comes to the library and turns into a bookshelf, library patrons do things — sometimes important things — at their local library! Here are some examples:

Toddlers improving their spatial reasoning while they play during storytime at the Franklin Park Library. Image credit: (cc) Franklin Park Library via Flickr
School-age kids learning computer programming at Manchester Central Library’s after-school Code Club. Image credit: (cc) Manchester Libraries via Flickr
Librarian assisting patron at the information desk at the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre of the UBC Library. Image Credit: (cc) UBC Library Communications via Flickr
Harpist Amber Burdick performing at the Topanga Library. Image credit: (cc) Oleg Kagan

You’ll notice the variety of activities happening in these images, and I needn’t point out that they’re not at all unusual. Storytime happens on a weekly, if not daily, basis at most libraries. Computer classes and clubs are ubiquitous at libraries (I used to run a weekly drop-in coding workshop at my library back in 2012–13). Research assistance has been a traditional library practice since well before the formation of public libraries, as have library concerts, often with an accompanying lecture. The point is, that there shouldn’t be any hesitation in using photos like this to represent libraries.

It is a fact that libraries are places where ideas are born and grow. Sometimes, that starts with an e-book checked out from the library website:

Libraries have been lending e-books and audiobooks for nearly 20 years!

Other times, ideas and learning are nurtured in collaboration with others. At a book club:

Meeting of the Japanese Book Club at the University of British Columbia Library. Image Credit: (cc) UBC Library Communications via Flickr

Or study group:

Many libraries have study rooms specially designed for this purpose.

Or a library program, with a bunch of your peers, and the odd snake:

Patti Kumazawa presents a program on desert animals in the base library at Edwards Air Force Base. Image Credit: Rebecca Amber / Edwards AFB website

Not everything that happens at the library is as raucous as a program on desert animals, however. I’ve written before about how libraries benefit health and well-being by allowing visitors to slow down and think. Slow Information (or slow info) means taking one’s time and focusing, curtailing the rate of new stimuli, and easing into an experience. Few things are more in tune with that category than classes on yoga and meditation, which occur at many a library across the country including the San José Public Library:

“Yoga for Every Body” a class incorporating basic meditation and yoga at the Edenvale Branch Library. Image Credit: (cc) San José Public Library via Flickr

But slow info is most often exemplified by solitary activities, such as reading:

#tfw a book is so good you can’t make it out of the stacks!


Free wifi, article databases, research assistance, and plenty of space.


It’s okay to just stop and think at the library. Really, it is.

There are so many images not centering on bookshelves that can be used to represent libraries. How about something related to co-working? Learning job skills? Searching for work? Business development? Libraries as centers for creativity? Library makerspaces? Literacy training? Or an image highlighting the library’s deep and engaging digital resources? Sure, it means taking a few more minutes to select the right photo. But isn’t a picture worth a thousand words?

Libraries are a complex institution that serve all of society no matter what age, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic level a person is. Books support what libraries do, but they do not define what a library is. Let’s all do better at articulating our library’s vast and vital functions via how vividly we visually represent them!

The image above is comprised of library lovers from all over. Join them by liking EveryLibrary on Facebook.


Stories about libraries and librarians around America. We cover the breadth of experiences that people have through their libraries, and showcase the amazing people who work there.

Oleg Kagan

Written by

Writer and librarian. More at lifeinoleg.com


Stories about libraries and librarians around America. We cover the breadth of experiences that people have through their libraries, and showcase the amazing people who work there.

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