Are libraries becoming obsolete?

Maybe not

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March 17, 2013

Benjamin GilliesWINNIPEG, MB, Mar. 17, 2013/ Troy Media/ – For thousands of years, libraries have offered citizens a place to share ideas and get lost in the pages of a book. At the turn of the last century, however, there were those who believed that in the Internet era nobody would have the time or inclination to use a library anymore. In the 21st century, these palaces of literacy and learning would become obsolete.

Well, maybe not. According to a 2012 report published by Lumos Research, per capita library usage has increased 45 per cent in the last decade in Canada. Many libraries are seeing record numbers of borrowers. And, of course, one cannot forget last year’s major public backlash against recommended cuts to Toronto’s library services. Despite all the entertainment options of the modern world, Canadians still love their libraries.

To their credit, librarians have worked hard to ensure their institution remains relevant to the public. Recognizing the fast-growing power of the e-reader – in 2010, 6 per cent of North Americans used such a device; by 2012, the number had exploded to 33 per cent – they have heavily invested in making e-books and electronic audiobooks available for download.

Besides making it incredibly convenient to borrow a book (an e-book returns itself, eliminating late fees), the popularity of the e-readers provides new opportunities to increase the efficiency of the library itself. For decades, libraries needed to be large spaces housing an expansive collection of books, which requires money for heating, lighting, and maintenance. While there will always be joy in perusing the physical stacks, as more people choose e-readers city library systems will not have to purchase and store quite so many hard copies.

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In San Antonio, Texas, there are plans to open what is likely the world’s first book-free library branch. Called BiblioTech, it will offer only e-books, and patrons will be able to borrow a Kindle like you would otherwise borrow a book. In the future, could public library systems have a handful of large branches for those who enjoy browsing, with smaller satellites in community centres or other accessible locations where patrons can read the newspaper, pick up materials delivered from the larger branches, or peruse online collections?

Of course, some may ask why they would even bother to go to the library if they can just borrow online. The answer is that a library is about more than just the books themselves; it is also about the relationship between a librarian and their patrons. And thanks to technology, this relationship can become stronger than ever. In Britain, a number of libraries have removed their old checkout counters (freeing up space for a more welcoming entrance with appealing new displays) and installed small digital kiosks where patrons borrow and return books themselves. One librarian assists with the kiosks, but other employees are freed from such housekeeping tasks to spend more time with patrons.

Not surprisingly, studies show people are more engaged with reading when they have a strong relationship with their local librarian. Building on this principle, a program at the Seattle Public Library has readers submitting answers to a short questionnaire online to get advice from librarians on what they might enjoy, to foster such a connection before the reader even sets foot in the branch itself. Meanwhile, as Matthew Bingham, librarian supervisor at Victoria, B.C.’s Central Branch notes, ‘there is so much information out there, but how much of it is good? Librarians can help people navigate the sea of information.’ Courses offered by knowledgeable librarians on evaluating web sources, online investment, or a myriad other subjects could strongly complement the library of the digital age.

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Building on this, libraries may even become incubators of entrepreneurship. In the next few months, Arizona State University will be rolling out a new program inside public libraries in Scottsdale, with participating branches hosting dedicated co-working spaces, as well as both formal classes and informal mentoring on how to launch a company. As libraries offer just about everything a 21st century innovator needs – internet access, workspace, reference materials, and professional guidance – in a familiar and comfortable setting, they could market themselves as a natural support for the record numbers of Canadians starting their own business.

Technology is transforming libraries into dynamic new areas of community life. By incorporating traditional and electronic resources, libraries can provide a more pleasurable and engaging experience for patrons, while actually costing less to run. These developments will help ensure libraries continue to flourish – which, it seems, is exactly what Canadians want.

Troy Media Municipal Affairs columnist Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy. He works as a consultant in Winnipeg.

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