Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Two futures

Yesterday I studied two pieces on the future of libraries. The first was an article in The New Republic magazine Towards a New Alexandria: imagining the future of libraries by Lisbet Rausing. The second was the Newsnight report on public libraries.

In many ways these two pieces are looking at entirely different things. Rausing's article looks at the potential offered by digitalization and the rise of the universal electronic library. Referring to the Swedish term "folkbildningsidealet, that profoundly democratic vision of universal learning and education.", she speculates on the impact of not only digitalizing the contents of our great national and academic libraries but also of including grey literature and ephemera. "What do we do" she asks "when we have not only the Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptures and Architects but also Vasari's blog, wiki, twitter, texts, emails, chatroom, Facebook, radio interviews, TV appearances and electronic notebooks?

Rausing then warns of the dangers involved - how the migration into electronic formats can restrict access to information. She points out that some intermediaries - publishers, academics and [academic] librarians - are preventing free, universal access to material because of "Cultural agoraphobia" - fear of open networks. "… obstacles are imagined—and created. University libraries are closed shops, JSTOR remains blocked, theses are inaccessible, and academic monographs are available, if at all, only on paper and at prohibitive prices". She makes the possibly naïf but valid point that "… the public has set itself the task to rewrite knowledge for the public domain through Wikipedia and the like. Should not these sites be hyperlinked with JSTOR? By excluding the public from their scholarly literature, academics make it impossible for amateurs to use sound research methodologies, critically examining evidence by cross-referencing and source analysis. Scholars then critique the public’s output for not being sufficiently academic".

All this seems a long way from the debate on Newsnight. That was all about declining borrowing and visit figures for public libraries. A comparison was made between public baths and libraries. When most people did not have running water in the house they needed a public place to have a bath. Now most people have plumbing we don’t need municipal washhouses. Now most people have the Internet and can get books from Amazon and information from Google so why do we need public libraries? What the defenders of libraries failed to get over was than Internet access in the home does not deliver folkbildningsidealet. Much of the discussion was about public libraries as social spaces and the need to make them more attractive to attract more users. That is undoubtedly true but we must maintain this link between the friendly branch library as a place to choose some books and meet friends and the wider world of information and learning with the librarian as a positive intermediary. My local bank is little more than a room full of cash dispensers, but it does have a free telephone link to central office. Sometimes when I visit branch libraries I feel I am in a cul-de-sac; very pleasant and welcoming but with little sense that I am at a portal to something larger. That is our USP and we must hold on to it.

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