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The more things change: the role of the independent library in the 21st century
Independent libraries are stand-alone libraries that do not have parent organisations such as local councils, educational institutions or other organisations. Historically, independent libraries have been considered the precursors to modern public library systems. As such, although thousands of these libraries existed in the 17th to 19th centuries, by the midpoint of the 20th century, the majority had disappeared or been absorbed into public library systems. However, a number have survived, and new ones have come into existence in the second half of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st century. Their existence raises the question: what is the role of the independent library in the 21st century? This research examines that role through analysis of websites, histories, mission statements, and testimonials, as well as visits to independent libraries where possible. Using place theory as a theoretical lens, it emerges that independent libraries are meeting the needs of communities not currently met by mainstream public and academic libraries. These needs include serving minority and marginalised communities, providing access to subject specialisations, providing places for contemplation and quiet study, and providing a place – both physical and virtual – for the creation and sharing of stories. Independent libraries also highlight two other roles they share with mainstream public and academic libraries. The first is the development of social and community identity through story and the connections made between past, present, and future. This speaks to the role of the library as a memory institution. The second is the role of the library as fourth place: the place for our creative and intellectual lives. This role extends Oldenburg’s (1999) third place theory.