Are Libraries Necessary? Are Libraries Obsolete?

(Three-Minute Read)

“Libraries are under siege!”

—Silka and Rumery

Policy in Brief:

Are libraries becoming obsolete? Are they still necessary in the twenty-first century? In this post, Linda Silka and Joyce Rumery provide readers with an overview of the importance and complexity of the issues underlying two competing visions for how Maine’s libraries will continue to serve their communities in the future:

  1. As physical centers at the heart of their communities
  2. As leading the revolution in digital information technologies

Fascinating Features:

Libraries as dynamic and changing entities:

Libraries, though historically seen as static, never-changing entities, have been dynamic and ever-evolving. In fact, the president of the American Library Association notes that “the library of today is not the library of our childhood, and the library that children see today is not the library we’ll see in 20 years.” In our present digital information age, libraries are becoming more important than ever; however, how libraries are needed and how they are being used is changing.

Maine is a particularly good case study for understanding and developing the goals, strategies, and policy decisions regarding the fate of libraries as Maine has been at the forefront in several ways for developing innovative solutions to the challenges that confront libraries:

  1. Few other states have found ways to bring into partnership different types of libraries:
    • Academic, public, special libraries, state libraries
  2. Maine has developed effective solutions to sharing resources in an age of limited funding for libraries.

The central paradox challenging libraries is this:

  • Libraries are the places in the community most affected by changes in information technologies. Policymakers and tax payers argue that libraries should become less focused or even give up their physical setting in favor of strengthening their online presence.
  • Libraries are becoming more important as physical places within communities where people can carry out activities that serve to maintain a community’s social capital.

Libraries as Physical Locations:

In the past, libraries were generally synonymous with physical locations and physical resources. Warehouses that stored and lent out books, magazines, newspapers, DVDs, CDs, cassette tapes, and VHS movies.

Libraries have also served as a place to go, a place where community members gathered, and a place where people can pursue information freely and without challenge.

There are three uniquely important roles for libraries as physical locations:

  1. In the case of emergencies, libraries are important as places for people to connect with their communities and located the resources needed to obtain assistance. Oftentimes Internet access is first restored to libraries during times of disaster.
  2. During economic downturns, libraries play a vital role where training is offered to help people get back on their feet. Often individuals can receive assistance on how to write a resume, how to write a cover letter, or how to find and apply for work in general. Further, as personal resources evaporate, libraries become places where individuals can obtain entertainment and education from in-print and online resources.
  3. Libraries serve as physical community meeting spaces. Libraries host lectures, art exhibits, children’s educational programming, knitting circles, play readings, and many other activities. They will continue to serve as a place to gather with friends, a place to be alone and gather one’s thoughts, and a place to be a part of something bigger by engaging with a broader community.

Envisioning the Future in a Time of Changing Information Technologies:

Libraries and library staff have served and can continue to serve integral roles in the community with the rapidly changing technology occurring in the information age:

  1. Libraries have long served the roles of intermediary and educator, as guides to the use and discovery of information. With the deluge of information available on the Internet, users are often overwhelmed and find it difficult to navigate and assess the trustworthiness and reliability of sources.
  2. Librarians are champions for the free access of information. No other type of organization allows all to enter and protects their rights to information. There is no vetting of whose questions are answered, who may borrow a book, or who may attend a lecture. Yet, in the new information age, people’s access to information and their anonymity in doing so have come under threat. In Maine, all information about who has previously checked out a book is removed. The result is no one can track usage.
  3. Libraries serve as physical spaces in the communities that house resources about the place where they are located and the history of the local community. This includes warehousing historical records and genealogical records.
  4. Libraries serve as digital access points for archival records that allow individuals to engage in citizen science, amateur historical work, and personal or community genealogy.

Image of Library on Smartphone

Despite these roles, there are many challenges:

Libraries faces numerous challenges as they attempt to meet the competing demands of being a resource for the Internet age and being a resource with a physical location in a particular place:

  1. The lending and offsite access to e-resources raises concerns of if libraries own and have the rights to lend these materials for which they are conduits. What are the copyright restrictions? How does the online medium complicate as well as democratize the access to information?
  2. The range of skills required by librarians and the need for libraries to fund specialized technological training to their staff in an age of diminishing resources also poses a serious challenge. Without training, librarians may fall behind in their expertise on the very devices and programs that their patrons increasingly depend upon for information.
  3. With the 24/7 news and information cycle, libraries struggle to find their role as a guide after hours. How can libraries direct individuals to the appropriate resources to understand a current development if it occurs outside of the staff times of the physical location?
  4. As technology rapidly changes, materials, devices, and formats come in and out of fashion and become obsolete. Though patrons may hunger for the change to engage with the latest gadget or program, librarians have the difficult decision regarding how long the technology will last, how long individuals will communicate across specific platforms, or how cost effective the new means of gaining information is. Thus, the lifespan of changing technologies as well as the resources required to train staff in the use of new devices and programs must be accessed against overall monetary costs.
  5. Though libraries, especially in Maine, have a rich tradition of sharing their physical resources, the sharing of e-rsources is increasingly complex. Often, publishers implement restrictions making the sharing of digitized resources difficulty, costly, or impossible.

Conclusions:

As the times have changed, so too have libraries changed. Libraries can be depended on partly because of their rich traditions, but also because they are institutions that respond to changing technologies and changing needs.  As they face they challenges and opportunities highlighted above, Maine’s libraries will have three diverse policy issues to contend with:

  1. The concern of how to create robust practices that allow for continuity while also ensuring that libraries are responsive to potentially disruptive technological change.
  2. With the increased emphasis of return on investment, what strategies can libraries use to measure returns on complex and multifaceted outcomes such as community impact?
  3. With a strong tradition of local control, what are the policy implications if community libraries are folded into regional systems with regional governance over local library concerns and issues or if community libraries rely on shared resources for which decisions about content and purchasing are made at a regional or state level?

As libraries move into the future, we will continue to see a blend of the old and the new. Libraries have evolved to respond to new needs, employing new technologies, but have kept the essence of what they have always been—a community resource, responding to whatever their community needs.

Dig Deeper:

Silka, Linda, and Joyce Rumery. 2013. “Are Libraries Necessary? Are Libraries Obsolete?” Maine Policy Review 22(1): 10-17. (eight-pages, 10-minute read)

From MPR’s Archive:

Norman, Melora. 2013. “Libraries and the First Amendment.” Maine Policy Review 22(1): 121-123.

Rumery, Joyce, and Tom Abbot. 2013. “When Disasters Strike; An Interview by Linda Silka.” Maine Policy Review 22(1): 132-134,

Visser, Marijke. 2013. “Digital Literacy and Public Policy through the Library Lens.” Maine Policy Review 22(1): 104-113.

Related Resources:

Anthony, Scott D., Mark W. Johnson, Joseph V. Sinfield, and Elizabeth J. Altman. 2008. Innovator’s Guide to Growth: Putting Disruptive Innovation to Work. Harvard Business School Press, Cambridge, MA.

Cohn, Cindy and Parker Higgins. 2012. Who’s Tracking Your Reading Habits? An E-Book Buyer’s Guide to Privacy. Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Khan, Salman. 2012. The One World Schoolhouse. Grand Central Publishing, New York.

 

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