We still need libraries in the digital age
With the government axing public services, librarians are being forced to defend their existence against accusations of irrelevance in modern society. As one adviser on Newsnight put it during the BBC’s recent “mini-consultation” on the proposed cuts, why do we need libraries when everyone has broadband and can access information without recourse to a librarian?
There are a number of problems with this argument.
Firstly, as recent statistics from the Office for National Statistics demonstrate, not everyone has broadband access, let alone internet access. Statistics for 2009 show that 63% of the UK population have broadband, leaving more than a third who do not. Furthermore, more than 10 million adults in the UK have never used the internet. And, unsurprisingly, it is the poorest who are least likely to have an internet connection – only 52% of those with no qualifications have access.
Public libraries provide a key role in both facilitating access to information via the internet, as well as providing free internet access to bridge the digital divide, which does not only exist between industrialised and developing nations. Taking away this important role would disenfranchise people further, and mean they would have to refer to a commercial provider. Given that they are likely to have very few available resources, how can anyone morally argue that there is no longer a need for libraries to provide free internet?
Secondly, there is the issue of IT literacy. There is a common belief that once everyone has broadband, all problems relating to access to information will be solved. But it is not enough. There are still many users who cannot search the internet correctly and successfully. Some simply select the top result in Google rather than ensuring that their search terms are appropriate, and that the resource is reliable. It is not just the general public – even respected journalists seemingly fail to grasp the intricacies of search engines. Take, for example, this piece by Evelyn Gordon in which she claims that Amnesty International had made only one statement about the crisis in the Congo during 2009.
What appears to have happened is that she has used the search term congo amnesty international and clicked on the link Congo | Amnesty International, which does indeed produce one result for 2009. However, this refers to the Republic of Congo not the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is what the article itself was referring to (Amnesty actually made more than 20 statements on the DRC during 2009). A simple error has led to inaccurate information being imparted via a supposedly experienced journalist (which was then repeated by another journalist, Melanie Phillips).
Consider the implications this has in a democracy where the proliferation of misinformation is caused by poor IT literacy. And that is without even considering the issue of adult illiteracy, or the fact that it is not compulsory for new academies to include a library.
Librarians not only provide access to physical materials, they are also trained in using the internet appropriately to extract information for users – a skill that has been at the heart of the profession for many years. This ensures that misinformation is minimised and helps to maintain a well-informed society. Furthermore, as information professionals, they play an important role in facilitating access to government information that is otherwise inaccessible to the disenfranchised. This is also crucial in a democracy, particularly during times of economic crisis. And yet, when they’re needed most, libraries are talked of as an irrelevance by policymakers who think libraries should be run by untrained volunteers.
Statistics may show a decline in library goers (although these are not accurate reflections of how the service is utilised), but figures obtained from Cipfademonstrate a 49% increase in the usage of library websites. Libraries are not declining in importance – people are simply changing the way they use them. It does not then follow that we need to abandon libraries as they are now and shift everything online, which would be a disaster.
Libraries are a bridge between the information-rich and the information-poor. They need reinforcing, not dismantling. We need to continue to provide a highly skilled service that is able to meet the needs of the general public. The service ought to continue to innovate to take advantage of the way in which people are interacting with the service in a different way. It needs to continue to bridge the gap between those who have access to the internet and those who do not, while also ensuring it delivers on other aspects of its core service (book loans, local studies materials, etc). If the service is cut, we run the risk of an ill-informed society that is ill-equipped to prosper in the “information age” – a dangerous prospect for any democracy.
Courtesy of The Guardian