Sydney libraries have been in the media a lot over the past few months, although the focus has been more on university libraries filling skip bins with books and journals that have been weeded from their collections. In just one response, at Sydney University, a mass book borrowing action was organised, to save books from failing the “dust test”.
People have weighed in on both sides of the debate, which seems to be neatly divided into these arguments: Libraries are social spaces and technology is changing the way we use information vs. Libraries are for information, they are places to collect books and knowledge and for people to be able to go into that world, research, and discover.
Last weekend an article in the News Review section of the Sydney Morning Herald effervescently proclaimed the new order:
The library manager for the City of Sydney, David Sharman, says public libraries are also changing. Their function has gone from a warehouse for books to a pleasant place in which people want to spend time. There, the focus on book preservation of 40 years ago is now balanced against the demands of visitors, who want more than to sit on a patch of carpet with a book on their lap.
“The belief at the time was that books and light don’t mix because it makes the paper fade,” he says. “We’ve gone full circle because natural light and people do mix.”
Libraries are becoming airier. Rows of shelves are opening out to lounges and cafes. Desks come with powerpoints for students to plug in laptops and sunlight passes over squat shelves that no longer need a ladder for access.
I am assuming David Sharman (and perhaps the article’s author?) are not the kind of people who have ever spent an afternoon browsing the shelves, in search of unexpected treasures. To suggest that libraries have never been a pleasant place where people want to spend time is ridiculous and the “patch of carpet with book on lap” scenario is hyperbolic. As I go exploring through Sydney’s public libraries, my guess is that I will find people spending time in them regardless of whether they have lounges and cafes or not, and there are some people who probably like sitting on the carpet with a book on their lap.
Underneath all this I sense an anxiety for libraries to be viewed as contemporary spaces. Who are these lounges and cafes designed to attract? Young people with laptops. Libraries are worried that young people with laptops will go elsewhere.
One of the problems in our cities and suburbs is the lack of public space. Is there anywhere besides the library where people can go that is a true public space? The only other places I can think of are parks, which are recreational spaces. There is nothing that comes close to a library for inclusiveness or ease of use: pretty much anyone can walk in and use the space.
With these heavy demands on the library as the one public space accessible to all, it is no wonder that the social demands on them have forced a change in their priorities. This, however, is no reason to forget the fact that they are places for information and information archiving. Why do I go to the library? It’s not to have a cup of coffee. Further on in the article, David Sharman suggests that Wikipedia could replace a lot of books in the library:
Search engines have also changed the information people look for. Requests for low-level information – what Sharman calls “Wikipedia-level references” – have given way to increased interest in niche information. Search engines and websites such as Wikipedia satisfy the initial demand for information.
“[Wikipedia] may be right, it may be wrong, but it will give you an answer,” Sharman says.
While I agree that Wikipedia does provide a convenient first stop for information, as David Sharman himself says, this information may be right or wrong. To suggest that Wikipedia lifts the responsibility on places like libraries to provide basic information is dangerous: after all, where does the information from Wikipedia come from? Books, of course, and people researching books and journals in libraries. The people contributing to Wikipedia, especially about specialist topics, are most likely people of a generation who grew up with books and libraries, and it is for this reason they have a depth of knowledge. There is more focus on luring young people to the library to fulfil a demographic desire than to educate young people in information literacy.
I am reticent to side with the view that libraries should not change. Personally I love old places and objects, and there’s a lot about the current culture of surface engagement with things and places that I disagree with. However I do see the need to adapt to changes in technology, although I also believe that decisions made in panic, when the future of publishing, media and digital technology is still unclear, can be dangerous.
I don’t believe we can expect the digitising of books and information to come to us for free, as these items would within a library. The internet that people dreamed of back in the 1990s, of the free distribution of information, has failed to eventuate. We’re all looking at google books with the pages missing, and we know our credit card numbers by heart.