Friday, October 27, 2006

Who Needs Libraries?

The last three posts were about public perceptions of libraries. Putting it that way kind of takes all the fun out of the posts though doesn't it? Comedians Bill Maher and Jerry Seinfeld touched on the stereotype of shushing, timid librarians, but basically seemed to be pro-library, if a bit condescending towards the people who run them. Oh well, librarians are used to it and won't lose any sleep over it. But the piece in the London Times by a guest contributor was worth considering because it's a bit worrisome that people want to abolish libraries. The opinion piece is based on a few false assumptions. One is that libraries are about, or should be about, books and only books. Another assumption is that the internet has replaced the need for books to do research. Finally, she assumes that everyone has the financial means to buy books and own a computer. The writer is wrong in all cases. Public libraries are about universal free access to information for education and entertainment. The form of the materials in these "people's universities" is not central to the mission of the library. At one time library materials were almost exclusively books. Now libraries offer information in many formats: videos, dvd's cd's, books on cd, downloadable audiobooks and music, databases and, yes, books. The library also serves as a community center, a place where people search for jobs, learn English, get help with taxes, attend free programs of all kinds and so on. Where else would these activities take place FOR FREE if not in a public library? What institution in any country would be willing to take on these services? And what profession would be willing to offer these services other than the library profession?
The second false assumption in the Times article is that the internet replaces the library as a source for information and research. The problem is that there is still a generation, baby boomers and older, who often do not know how to use the internet, do not own a computer and need help sorting out the rubbish on the internet from the truth. This is the generation that libraries and librarians help and teach every day.
Finally, not everybody has the money, or wants to spend the money, to buy books or to own a computer to access the internet. The Times piece is not totally without merit though, it is true that libraries are changing and may not always take the form they do now, but the reports of their near demise are premature, I think.

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