The Undercover Librarian

News: Are libraries finished? Five arguments for and against

This article from BBC news just hit my inbox, and I felt that it was too relevant and too interesting to ignore:

“With more than 400 public libraries under threat of closure, the campaign to save them is gathering pace. But in an age of downloads, cheap books and easy online shopping, can this great British institution survive?

Some of the UK‘s best-selling authors have joined the fight against “cultural vandalism” by backing a national day of protest read-ins against library closures on Saturday. . . Campaigners say they are irreplaceable doors to learning more relevant now than ever before, but for others the speed and breadth of the web has rendered them obsolete dinosaurs.”

Although the article focuses on library closures in the UK, this is an issue that affects libraries around the world; finances are tight everywhere, and all libraries, whether public, school, corporate, or academic, are having to make cuts and defend their usefulness within their communities.

It’s difficult to argue with the points made in favour of libraries (although I have an admitted and very obvious bias), so instead, I’ll address the “Only online” arguments. (I’ve left a line of two from each argument just to give readers an idea of the point that the article is trying to make, but I encourage you to head over to the BBC News Magazine and read the whole thing.) As a bit of a caveat, you’ll notice that I refer most frequently to libraries within the city of Toronto as I make my arguments. This is simply because I live here, and as such, I’m more familiar with what the city has to offer. That’s not meant to be dismissive of other libraries at all, and if you’re familiar with another library – of any type – and their activities or services are applicable here, I’d love for you to get in touch and tell me about it.

So, here are the arguments of those believe that libraries are finished and that “online only” is the way to go. My responses follow.

1. Searchability: “The speed of research and interactivity of the internet make it an altogether richer experience than traditional libraries.”

I’ve had experience in a high school library here in Toronto, in a special library that is part of a large national organization, and in a university library, and a lot of research, including the research performed in libraries, is now done online. That’s not to say that people have stopped using books entirely; rather, they’ve started to combine both methods to find as much relevant information as possible. Each type of resource has its benefits and its downfalls, and using electronic and print sources together can yield some great results. And wouldn’t you know it – libraries have both of those things, free of charge.

2. Digital books “Forget catching a bus to the library to carry home a limited number, yet heavy stack nonetheless, of books. For those who can afford a portable reader like a Kindle or iPad, the convenience of accessing books on a beach, up a mountain, or anywhere else for that matter, can be irresistible.”

Time for a confession: I own an e-reader, and I make good use of it. I spend between twenty and twenty-five hours each week on public transit, and I can zip through a lot of reading in that time. By storing books on my reader, my backpack is significantly lighter, and my back and shoulders are much happier at the end of the day.

But I get the majority of my books from my public library, which has made a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction titles available, and more are being added all time. The Toronto Public Library system isn’t the only one that offers e-books; large library systems across Canada, the United States and all over the world are embracing this technology, and smaller systems are starting to do the same – just do a Google search for “public libraries offering e-books” to get an idea of just how many libraries have them available. (And please don’t tell my database searching professor that I told you to check Google.)

What the “online only” crowd seems to have missed is the real purpose of libraries. Regardless of size or type, our function and our goal is to provide access to information; the format doesn’t matter. So why would libraries ignore this technology, and why would users think that libraries don’t provide these materials? The answer is they don’t, and they don’t. The number of people accessing ebooks through their public libraries is skyrocketing, and more users are learning every day that their libraries offer e-books and audio books which can be downloaded free of charge.

3. Comfort in numbers “. . . forums and social networks can be an impersonal way to interact, but sometimes magic happens. Mr Dalby explains: “Sometimes the right answer just comes when people ask each other questions on forums.””

Point three suggests to me that someone on the “online only” side hasn’t been in their local public library in quite some time. Libraries don’t just function as a source of information; they’re a hub of the community. Take as an example the Fairview branch of the Toronto Public Library. This branch serves an incredibly diverse population; many residents in this area are new to Canada. In addition to materials in fifteen different languages, Fairview also offers a range of programs in multiple languages, including book clubs (in Chinese) children’s story times (in Chinese, Persian, and French), ESL classes and English conversation circles, job search seminars, and a whole slew of other classes and programs for all ages and interests. And all of the programs are free. What better way is there to meet people, exchange ideas, and learn about your community?

Even in small communities, the library functions as a central location for people to gather. Two years ago, my university roommate and her husband moved to Lynn Lake, Manitoba, a community of approximately eight-hundred people, located 1100 kilometres north of Winnipeg. My friend found part time work in the community’s library, and she tells me that whenever they’re opened, they’re busy. In addition to doing school work, reading, and research, community members are using the library as a place to meet, a reason to get out and see each other, and for a lot of people, it’s a means of combating boredom. But regardless of their reasons for going there, the library functions as another way to get out and interact with the people around them.

4. Brings niches together “If you had a niche interest in something, it wasn’t always easy to find someone with the same niche interest, now it really is”

Libraries are offering an ever-increasing range of programs for a wide variety of age groups. A quick (and highly unscientific) survey shows that the Toronto Public Library offers tai chi, English conversation circles, income tax clinics, pension plan clinics, books clubs, gardening clubs, teen movie nights, baby story times, chess, consol gaming, budgeting and financial management classes, lessons in internet basics, jewellery making, manga and anime clubs, DJ’ing lessons – and that’s just a small sample from one branch.

Libraries, large and small, listen to their patrons. They want people to use their resources and they strive to meet the information needs of their communities. So if members of the community served by the library – whether it’s a small town, a large city, a college or university, a school, a non-profit organization or a corporation – ask for a particular program or service, you can bet that the library staff are going to try their best to accommodate them. And when members of the community come out to these events, lo and behold, people come together and discover common interests that they didn’t know they had.

5. Self-publishing ” . . . the traditional barriers to publishing have been shifted by the advent of do-it-yourself e-books on the internet. Whereas information in libraries has been limited to the books on its shelves – the information which managed to get published, sites like Blurb allow you to print on demand”.

Ok, I have to admit that they got me on this one. Print and ebook self-publishing are now readily available online, and this simply isn’t a service that libraries offer. They’ll help you with your research for your book, help you to connect with other authors, help you to find publishers – or self-publishing services – and maybe even help with editing. But they’re not going to publish your books and ebooks, because that’s not what libraries do – they provide access to information. (So while they won’t publish it, they may very well make it available.) And that’s alright; libraries aren’t meant to be everything to everyone, and for some things, solitary internet use in the privacy of your own home or office is the best way to go.

But out of the five arguments they put forward, four have pretty solid counter-arguments, and while libraries can’t do everything, neither can the internet. Both have their benefits and uses, and both are hopefully here to stay; the disappearance of either would certainly be a significant loss.


What’s your perspective? Are libraries still useful, or have they been rendered obsolete? Although it’s pretty clear which side I’m on, I’d love to hear perspectives from all sides.


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This entry was posted on February 11, 2011 by and tagged , .
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