What are libraries for? To the generations that have grown up with free access to local public libraries, this may seem like a stupid question. The recent library closures in UK and USA have generated heated debate on both sides of the Atlantic. Should we forget about libraries now that we have the iPad and Amazon Kindle? Should we force our children to look things up in printed encyclopaedias when it’s so much easier to search for things on the Internet? Should we continue to pay for a building full of books?
According to author and motivational speaker Seth Godin, libraries were initially just “warehouses for books worth sharing“. This at a time when books cost “about as much as a small house”. We’ve come a long way from that. Books have been accessibly priced, widely available and part of our everyday lives for centuries. There are, of course, regions of the world where books are still a treasured luxury but most of us in the developed countries have encountered, read through, and owned our fair share of books. Many of us have grown up using libraries. But when was the last time you visited one?
Some people argue that libraries are becoming obsolete. The argument about library closures always seems to boil down to whether paper books themselves are becoming obsolete. I think this is very short-sighted.
A good library is worth saving and a bad one is worth improving because when libraries work, they offer us much more than books on paper. You can also download free ebooks and audibooks from the convenience of your own home and pop them on that digital device. Good libraries have good librarians and good library assistants. Good libraries offer help for job seekers, group sessions for new parents and their children, access to valuable market research data for would-be entrepreneurs and all manner of things that don’t always seem at the forefront of discussions on the value of the library.
Whether libraries should continue to exist has almost nothing to do with what format the information comes in. It has everything to do with free public access to well-curated, well-organised, unbiased information; it has everything to do with libraries as part of the local community; it has everything to do with libraries as a source of entertainment that doesn’t presume everyone’s lives are an endless race to acquire wealth and possessions. Librarians aren’t out to sell you anything.
I can look up information from reliable sources via my local library’s online reference shelf. If I just searched the Internet, the same task would take me much longer because of the vast amount of unnecessary and unreliable information that I would have to wade through. Better still, when I visit my local library in person, the knowledgeable staff there know how to get to what I need in the shortest possible time and they often point out things that I wouldn’t have known to look for.
Librarians are information professionals. Can we really do without them in this age of information overload? How much more effective, stress-free, and simple would our lives be if we all had access to a good information professional?
Libraries have sometimes been accused of being ‘too middle-class’. It could be argued that this attitude contains the suggestion that knowledge itself is a bit too fancy, and a state of unsullied ignorance is in some way superior.
There are many things that are wrong with libraries as they are today. They need better equipment, faster internet connections, better staffing budgets and many other things besides. Some libraries are glowing beacons of civilisation, while others feel dreadful, musty and on the wrong side of a jumble sale.