The Library Redefined

Ten years ago, if you wanted to find out something, there was only one place to go. The Library. It might have been the local council library, or a university library, or maybe even the state library, but a library it was.

There you had your reference books, newspaper archives, the latest magazines, biographies, journals, maps, novels and non-fiction. The library was the information archive for man, and had been that way for nigh on 500 years.

What change has been wrought in a decade. Everything now has a digital existence; from words to sound, video and animation, it’s all online and on tap through the google machine.

So where to now for the Library? What role can it have now?

1) some libraries are going down the terminal path. They reason – if the information is now online, we can provide an access point. But this only makes sense if computers and broadband are expensive. They are not. So turning libraries into terminal spaces is folly.

2) as an archive for less and less books being published. This is the role state libraries have always played, and it is a noble goal. But eventually, such places will become museums and relics; curios for bibliophiles and interested tourists.

So where to? I cannot see an easy answer. But if the question is not confronted and opened up to public debate, we might find those library spaces we so cherished when we were growing up and studying, just utterly sidelined. And it could happen in 5 years time.


7 Responses to “The Library Redefined”

  1. SilverTiger Says:

    Until fairly recently, I worked in a public library.

    Public libraries certainly face problems. Many councils regard them as an expense they would like to curb or get rid of altogether and they are squeezing the libraries by reducing funding as much as legislation allows.

    Libraries recognize that they have to “move with the times”. One play in this game is the provision of computer facilities either free or for a small fee and free computer familiarization courses. This has proved very popular: in some libraries all the computers are occupied all day. The plan to give people access to computers for pleasure, profit and access to information is enhanced by The People’s Network.

    Much information is now available online but people often require help finding exactly what they need. This is why reference libraries staffed by information librarians are so important. It is a remarkable fact that you can walk into one of the larger public libraries and be guided by an information expert in obtaining the information you need on virtually any topic, all for free.

    Despite this, library usage is declining. Many library activities such as “events” for children, different sorts of reading campaigns, listening posts for music, etc. are designed to get people into libraries in the hope that once there, they will be persuaded to continue to visit. To this end, many libraries now incorporate cafes and have relaxed time honoured rules such as quietness and the banning of mobiles. Not all of these changes are popular with all library users.

    The future of public libraries is indeed in jeopardy. We may have to face the sad fact that its era is at an end: if people don’t care for it enough then it will disappear. This would be ironic given that the government is pressing for “learning throughout life”, a concept that the libraries are ideally placed to support.

    Libraries face many problems including that of choosing which road to go down: should they try to foster demand by giving people what they want (the “tabloid” approach)? or should they try to cultivate people’s taste by showing them what they ought to want (the “educational” approach)? or maybe a combination of both?

    My 9 years in the library service taught me how valuable it is. It will be a tragedy if we neglect it and let it die.

    Email SilverTiger

  2. caveblogem Says:

    Here in Massachusetts, and I assume in most of the rest of the continental United States as well, libraries are being repurposed as various types of public social spaces. The University of Massachusetts’ Amherst campus now allows food and drink, and renovated its spaces to allow more small gatherings, study groups, etc. They are following the lead of bookstores like Barnes and Nobel and Borders, who have on-site coffee vendors and tables, comfortable chairs. They host poetry readings, open-mic nights, etc. Many public city or county libraries in the area are making similar moves, without the coffee vendors, and are a place you can go to get in some internet time for free, as well as interest your children in reading (with public readings, etc.)

    Librarians are learning about web resources and folksonomies, and how to think critically but usefully about what the web has to offer.

    I still love books, but not having to purchase and store them, so I hope libraries continue to do this. But there have been some positive changes.

  3. Dave Munger Says:

    You might want to check out the if:book blog for more on this question:

  4. Crawdaddy Says:

    I still love just to sit in libraries. I know the best libraries in my area and sometimes sneak off to spend half-a-day there, with my bag of books, just to sit and think and read and write and plan. I love to be surrounded by books, by other people who are quietly thinking, focused on their projects. I love well-lit work spaces, reference materials, and the lack of cell phone noise. I love the idea of “free access to all the information that exists” and so I go to libraries. The best libraries in my area have had multi-million dollar renovations recently and they are more pristine and comfortable than my home. I haven’t thought about it enough to be sure, but just as the book will never die, I suspect libraries will never die, either. if they do, I might just have to open my own.

  5. Woeful Says:

    The library isn’t going anywhere. First, libraries have been in existence for at least 5000 years, not 500. In fact, the great library at Alexandria was constructed in 300BC. Indeed, the role of the library is changing because of the great strides in technology that are continually being made. However, the idea that “everything” is now online (or even digitized) is utter hogwash. A very small portion of information is actually available online. In fact, almost nothing created before 1980 exists in any digital format whatsoever.

    Libraries today bridge the gap in the ever widening digital divide. Yes, broadband is getting cheaper, however, many people can’t afford Internet access at all. Information literacy is another major factor that will keep libraries around for a long time. People, especially kids, have no idea what quality information actually is, or how to determine the quality of information. I see teens come in every day, who just assume that the top rank on Google is unbiased factual information. Frequently it is not. Nor is Wikipedia the end all and be all of truth. It’s nothing more than a starting point, but many people just accept that if it’s on the Internet it must be true. NOT! The state of scholarly research today is a mess because of this.

    Lastly, libraries are winning people over by becoming community centers where people come to watch films, listen to lectures, play games, etc… And provide CDs, DVDs, MP3 books, and many other formats for loan. Furthermore, any decent library today strives to provide unparalleled customer service. Not only is the patron (nearly) always right, but exhaustive measures are taken to provide the patron with the information he/she seeks. This level of customer service is what will ultimately keep the library around for years to come and, what sets libraries apart from everything else.

  6. ggwfung Says:

    thank you woeful,

    I appreciate your forthright opinion. And you do speak from a deep experience.

    I guess the starting point of my post was the ‘changing role” of the library in response to a more pervasive internet.

    I grew up on and still treasure great books. I adore the library! My fear is that it is people who turn their backs on the library, not the library which turns away from them.

    Thanks for the comment.


  7. Woeful Says:

    No problem! Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that someday in the distant future, what we currently think of as a library will be an anachronism. Right now, ebooks aren’t too well received. I’ve tried them, and I’m not a big fan (and I’m a systems guy). There is something about holding and reading a paper book that is very appealing, there still isn’t anything like it. Future generations probably won’t feel this way… Will that be a sad day? I don’t know, but it is evolution.

    Conceptually, this also elicits a new idea that people are beginning to wrestle with. What is a book? How is it defined? Some people are now considering listening to unabridged audiobooks to be, “reading.” I’m not sure how I feel about that, except to say that it isn’t really reading. Does consuming or immersing oneself in a story this way make it a less valuable way to ingest the information? I don’t think so, it’s just different.

    Anyway, we live in very exciting times. There are more ways for us to communicate, and to be entertained today than in any other age. We have some very cool stuff, and it probably pales in comparison to the stuff on the horizon. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next…

    Keep On Blogging!

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