Changing Environments/Changing Practices – A View of Public Libraries

This week we have been reading about the changes in public libraries due to the changes in technology and user requirements. One of our readings, 21st Century Libraries: Changing Forms and Changing Futures, asked the question, “What is a Library?” There is huge confusion about this question and about how important libraries are to communities. In the UK, for example, we see that libraries are being closed at an alarming rate with the Guardian stating that the UK lost over 200 libraries in 2012. (Click here for article) However, we are also seeing that there has been a huge outcry about the closure of libraries and people are far more willing to stand up and fight for their library than the English government may have thought. Last Saturday was National Libraries Day in the UK and there was a huge outpouring of love for libraries with #NLD2013 and #LoveLibraries trending on Twitter during the day. The resounding message seems to be that libraries are important. So what is it about libraries that is causing people

to get up and fight for them when they could so easily start an Amazon account and download e-books for a fraction of the price of physical books? Do libraries have a future?

Libraries are a place of community. Reading an article about library closures in Newcastle, I have found myself a little heartbroken. The quotes by the library users in this piece show how much they need and utilize the library as a meeting space. For some lonely, possibly older members of the community it is a reason to get up in the morning because they can go and see their friends and chat in a comfortable, warm space that isn’t going to ask them to leave after an hour if they can’t afford more than a cup of tea or coffee.

Libraries provide access to technology. As you can see from the infographic from Open-Site, in these times of recession they are closing libraries when in fact libraries are more important than ever for access to technology. Although this is US based there is no reason to think the same effects of the recession are not happening here or in the UK. People simply may not be able to afford computers and broadband access at home and yet increasingly you need access to the internet to look for and apply for jobs as well as for access to information which could be anything from educational needs to information about benefits etc.

Libraries provide traditional servicesA recent Pew study showed that along with people that wanted to see more technological advances in libraries there are those that like the library for its more traditional aspects. There are still people that enjoy borrowing and reading books and that use the library as a quiet space for study or reflection. These people also enjoy getting to know the librarians and using their services.

Libraries provide learning. Most public libraries these days offer people the opportunity to learn new things. Access to books and online information is one way of achieving this but libraries may also offer courses, guest lectures and most importantly help and assistance from dedicated librarians. Librarians have had to take on the role of teacher. People are using their local libraries to research family history, to learn how to use to computers, to bring their child to reading clubs. Libraries offer so many events and opportunities.

So if libraries are offering all these things, why are they being shut? What needs to happen in the future?

Basically, I believe libraries need to look at all the things that they are doing right and look at trends of the future to make sure they remain open and viable. They need to get the community behind them, people that are willing to fight for their local library.

For the people that want the traditional quiet space and books, these things need to be provided. For those that want a sense of community then there should be comfortable areas where it is OK to sit and chat. It is about utilizing library space in the best possible ways. There is also a need for the library to build on their offerings and to market them so people realise that they exist. Art shows, guest lectures and courses will only be successful if people know that they are available to them. Librarians need to continue to give the public fantastic service and be available to help patrons in any way that they can. I believe above all a library is a service and to be a good librarian you must be passionate about your library and its possibilities!

In a really interesting article, Helping People to Manage and Share Their Digital Information: A Role for Public Libraries, the authors speak about the library as a space where you can learn about preservation of digital items and the possibility of creating community repositories for important cultural information. I think this is a fantastic use of the library and the librarian’s skills. At the moment I am in the process of creating a digital library for a course and I have chosen to use old family photographs. The process of digitizing and storing these precious family objects is one which I think is hugely important as they include pictures of my grandfather’s grandfather. Ensuring that these images are carefully stored and accessible in an online environment for future generations of the family is a project I would love to take on. It is a project many of my family members would love to take on and I believe if help in this area was offered by the public library then it would most definitely be utilized.

I think that a public library has so much potential to be a real hub of the community and to reach this potential then it is a case of discovering what the current and prospective users want from the library and providing it as much as is possible. Technology is changing our libraries but maybe not as much as we might think and this is also something that must be taken into consideration.

I think public libraries are not going to find the road ahead a particularly easy one but I do believe that there are enough people that are passionate about libraries that the hard road will be worthwhile and rewarding in the end.

What do public librarians need to do?

I think the most important competencies for future public librarians will be ability to communicate effectively with patrons and ascertain what they want. I think they will need to be able to market and use free resources such as social media to keep costs down but awareness high. I think they will need to be passionate individuals that are willing to fight for their library and be pro-active in ensuring the library is an essential hub for the community, encouraging current users to remain and enticing new users. Above all I think there is a need to establish life-long learning as a major mission statement of the public library, not only in relation to patrons, but in relation to library staff. Learning and growing in the new technology age is the way forward and it will be up to the librarians to strike the balance between traditional and new. Going into the future is stepping into the unknown in many ways in relation to the survival of libraries in the technological age but personally, I believe libraries will always have a place if they listen to the community and provide a service by skilled and passionate librarians for that community.

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2 thoughts on “Changing Environments/Changing Practices – A View of Public Libraries

  1. I can totally understand your point. I have a background in retail and I believe that libraries need to re-think and re-brand to achieve success into the future. I think libraries can be many things to the communities they serve but there has to be strategy and planning. Identity crises are a problem for libraries but a problem that could be solved by simply identifying what users want from their particular library and by playing to the strengths of the individual library – I personally think they can be centres of learning, entertainment hubs and a mix of traditional (book lending and reference) and technology but there has to be room and a layout that reflects these different areas to make this a feasible option.

  2. Very interesting. I like the idea of libraries becoming adult education/learning centres or even a personalised archive centre. Once again the whole point of ‘what a library is actually for’ is brought into question. Is it to lend books, to educate, to inform, to entertain… Unless librarians can answer that question I fear the institution of a library is doomed.

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