A few quick questions before we start:
- Do you read the newspaper in print or online?
- Do you watch reruns of your favorite movies and shows on DVD, or do you opt for Netflix instead?
- Do you refuse to abandon print books, or do you adore the convenience of your e-reader?
As a consumer in the digital age, you have access to a greater volume of information in more formats than ever before. And regardless of how you answered these questions, the manner in which you access information and media has likely changed drastically. For example, online streaming of films and television shows has virtually eliminated video rental services (R.I.P., Blockbuster!).
Another question: Do you use your local public or academic library? If so, how often?
Many of us do not have the time to browse the stacks for hours on end, much as we might like to. What does this mean for the future of libraries?
Are libraries and the services they provide obsolete?
Though they have long been deemed the unfortunate victims of the digital age, here are a few reasons why libraries will not go the way of Blockbuster any time soon.
Quality versus Quantity
“Without libraries, what do we have? We have no past and no future.”
– Ray Bradbury
A simple Google search will yield millions of hits in a fraction of a second. This means that we can find information on any topic imaginable almost instantaneously.
If this is so, why use library resources? Visiting a library in person or using a library website to access resources might seem like more of a hassle than anything else.
I’m sure you’re aware, though, that the information you find on the Internet is unpredictable in terms of quality (to put it nicely). Immediate answers to your questions are not necessarily the best answers. And depending on your purpose and the type of information for which you are searching, getting the wrong information could be problematic.
For example, using information from an anonymous online blog to write your paper on the history of the printing press could lead to a true research disaster. (No, the printing press was not invented by a wheat-loving baker named Glutenberg in an attempt to spread pro-gluten propaganda.)
Librarians can help you sift through the content you are bombarded with daily and filter out the misinformation.
Librarians pride themselves on providing users with high-quality, trusted information. For example, as an alternative to resources like Wikipedia (which is fine for some preliminary research but should be used very cautiously as a final resource), libraries subscribe to electronic reference materials like dictionaries and encyclopedias. These sources provide information on an immense variety of subjects, with entries that are often written and signed by experts.
Information Access for All
“I go into my library and all history unrolls before me.”
– Alexander Smith
As a true library advocate, this point is one of my favorites.
In my view, the principle on which libraries operate is truly democratic. Those who have access to meaningful information can make well-informed decisions in all areas of their lives.
Libraries help remove barriers to information access by providing all users with free information in a variety of formats on virtually any topic. Library policies ensure that all library resources are routinely evaluated to eliminate any potential barriers that could inhibit users as they access information (e.g., paywalls for journal articles or hard-to-reach shelves).
Historically, librarians have championed users’ right to information on all topics and have even fought against authorities that have attempted to bar users from accessing this information.
For example, the Windsor Public Library in Ontario posted an article discussing some of the glorious banned books being read by staff, just in time for the American Library Association’s banned book week.
Libraries also help support literacy and learning for people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Sometimes referred to as the people’s university, libraries tackle the growing cost of education by providing free educational resources for everyone. These resources can provide academic support to students of all ages and aid those who wish to brush up on a topic or learn something new.
In addition, libraries can help users find a copy of virtually anything that exists bibliographically through interlibrary loans. This service allows users to obtain a copy of an item that is not held at their local library. Need an online article or a specific book? Before making an online purchase or running to the bookstore, try an interlibrary loan.
Though many of us are fortunate enough to have an Internet connection at home, some are unable (or unwilling) to subscribe to an Internet provider. Thankfully, libraries bridge the gap to digital information by offering free Wi-Fi so that users can surf the web and avoid paying a monthly Internet bill.
“My lifelong love affair with books and reading continues unaffected by automation, computers, and all other forms of the twentieth-century gadgetry.”
– Books in My Life, Robert Downs
Though the way that libraries offer their services has changed, the fundamental standards on which their services are based remain the same. Understanding user needs and emerging trends in information access are the guiding principles on which library services are based.
Libraries have demonstrated an incredible ability to adapt their services to shifting user needs. In an effort to reach more users and accommodate various preferences, library materials are offered in both traditional print and digital format.
In fact, many libraries (public and academic alike) have increased their focus on developing their electronic collections and digital resources. For example, Hoopla, a database available through the Chatham–Kent and Windsor Public Library systems, lets users borrow free digital music, movies, and audiobooks, all of which can be downloaded to a computer or phone for offline access. Most libraries subscribe to expensive databases and electronic resources so that patrons are able to use them for free.
Beyond Internet resources and other media, many practical opportunities are made available through libraries that teach the public everyday skills, such as how to do CPR, how to do basic yoga, and how to properly use laboratory measuring equipment. These events not only impart knowledge but also connect people and encourage community involvement.
Libraries are no longer simply repositories for print books waiting to be checked out; they are spaces in which collaborative learning and engagement take place. Library programming and events are incredibly diverse and target all segments of the population, and the resources libraries provide benefit all members of the public.
Although it may be impossible to predict the future of libraries, these institutions have proven to be innovative and relevant. Libraries will continue to cater to the needs of the public, even as those needs change.
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