Lately, I’ve been thinking about the future of libraries. We’ve been planning our library’s strategic direction at work (what will our priorities be over the next 3 years)? There’s a new library school at the University of Ottawa, working to define itself. And articles on the future of libraries are being shared right, left and center (including some interesting articles written in the Vancouver Sun: We Should Shut Our Libraries, Libraries Have Thrived, Attack on Libraries Misreads Public Sentiment).
Do libraries have a future? I think they do. Do libraries have to change, to adapt, to reinvent themselves to stay relevant in a digital world? Yes – though I don’t think they need to completely remake themselves, as is suggested by some.
What is the purpose of a library when the world is at our fingertips, when all the information we need and want can be found for free online (mostly… sort of…)? How should libraries prepare themselves for the future?
The Library as a Public Space
Libraries are a free public space. There are few places people can meet up, spend time, relax or work without being asked to spend money. Libraries are one of these few places. Not only are libraries free though, libraries are also making an effort to make their spaces comfy, appealing, accessible, and more. Libraries now have meeting rooms, reading lounges, coffee shops, computer rooms (and laptop spaces), and more. Libraries are no longer just warehouses for books, they are interesting and free spaces that are open to everyone. And these spaces are being used – as anyone who has visited a library on evenings or weekends can attest to.
Check out how libraries are revamping their spaces:
The Library as an Agent for Community Development
Libraries know their users, their communities. They know the resources available in their communities; they know what the members of their communities want and need; they know who the disadvantaged people are; they know the politicians; and they know how to connect people with the resources they need. And so, libraries are perfectly placed to bring people together, to provide meeting spaces, to encourage the meeting of groups, to partner with local organizations, to help the community grow. And libraries across the country are starting to take on community development roles, whether by creating and offering new services; or by connecting people in need to existing services; or by bringing people together to create their own services, to help the community grow.
Although the concept of libraries as agents for community development is only beginning to be formally discussed (check out this resource and this class), it is a role libraries have been playing for quite some time, be it at the information desk, during outreach events, at community meetings. There is also space for this role to grow and flourish, as communities (and cities) continue to redefine themselves.
But don’t take my word for it, see what libraries are proposing:
The Library as an Agent of Democratization of Technology
Technology is everywhere and it’s cheap, right? To most of us, this is true. But there are still many Canadians who don’t have easy access to technology. Currently, some 20% of Canadians (those who live in rural areas) still don’t have access to broadband internet (though the federal government has plans to change this). Furthermore, 3 million canadians live in poverty, and only a third of low income families have broadband internet access at home. Internet is everywhere? Internet is cheap? It depends on your perspective. There is indeed a digital divide in Canada, and as more and more information is only available online (including job postings), the digital divide is turning into an information divide. Libraries are one of the organizations that bridges this divide. Libraries provide access to the internet, to computers, to computer courses, to job search help, and much more. As long as this digital divide exists, libraries will remain an essential resource for underprivileged Canadians.
Find out how libraries are bringing the digital divide:
The Library as a Lender of Free Books (and eBooks)
The fact is most people still use the library to borrow books. This may seem pointless and self-evident, but it isn’t. The invention of radio, the invention of television, the invention of home movies, the invention of the internet, all were touted as the end of the book. Well the book survived these inventions, and I’m inclined to think the book will survive the invention of the eBook. And even if I’m wrong, even if eBooks eventually outcompete paper books all together, eBooks aren’t free. People like the freedom of being able to try a bunch of books (or eBooks) without committing to purchasing them… or at least people who use libraries do. Statistics show that book loans in libraries continue to increase from year to year. I would even go so far as to speculate that the digital age has contributed to the increase in book loans. People read about books, check out recommendations on Amazon, and come to the library with lists of books to borrow. Until books become freely available on the internet, I think the library will continue to serve people who want to borrow free books.
None of these concepts are completely new for libraries. Although libraries do need to evolve to meet the needs of their users, I have yet to be convinced that public libraries are irrelevant in the digital age. What do you think?