This week, I read a tweet by Joanne Harris: “As a writer it is my duty to inform the public that after 7 Tory years, libraries are on their knees. Your children’s dreams are at stake” (@Joannechocolat, 2017). In response to this, Johnny M wrote, “Kindle, IPhones [sic], Laptops…it’s 2017” (@cockney67, 2017). He then suggested that libraries could be put online, thereby reducing building and staff costs. This has been proposed by many others, including headteachers in relation to school libraries. In this instance, the aim is to save money on physical resources and wages for teacher-librarians and aides and to use the space for other activities.
The threat of library closures has led to a debate around the function of libraries within communities
There are a number of issues around moving from a physical library to a digital one. Firstly, it is important to remember that libraries are not just repositories for books. Following her tweet, Joanne Harris started the hashtag #ThingsOnlyLibrariesProvide so that people could share the many ways in which physical libraries serve communities. As many contributors pointed out, a library provides a safe place for those who are vulnerable either at home or within the community. It enables people to come together for a range of activities, including storytime, talks, classes, clubs and family history research. For some, this may be the only social contact they have. So libraries are about relationships as well as resources. In addition, the staff offer advice and assistance in finding books and information. This is particularly important in an age where the Internet offers quantity, but not necessarily quality in terms of facts. As Neil Gaiman said, “Google can bring you back…100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one” (Gaiman, 2010).
Then there is the question of equity. Not everyone has access to the Internet or owns a computer or portable device. If library resources were only available online, how would those without the necessary technology access them? This is an example of the digital divide, which is defined as “the growing gap between the underprivileged members of society, especially the poor, rural, elderly, and handicapped portion of the population who do not have access to computers or the internet” (“Digital Divide”, n.d.) and those who do. This further prejudices those who are already disadvantaged. In contrast, anyone is able to access resources for free at a physical library. In this respect, it is an equalising force within an often inequitable society.
Another issue regarding the move towards digital libraries is the preference for physical books. A recent survey by Nielsen found that “ebook sales are falling while sales of paper books are growing-and the shift is being driven by younger generations” (Cain, 2017). Only 4% of children’s fiction is purchased in a digital format, compared to 50% of all fiction sales. One reason is that children’s books have never taken off as ebooks (Cocozza, 2017). This is probably because a paper picture book lends itself so well to the sharing of a story, either one-on-one or with a group, as well as being handled and experienced physically. It also showcases illustrations in a way that a kindle can’t. In addition, according to a survey by Voxburner, 62% of young adults are choosing to read physical books rather than ebooks (Cain, 2017). Many children are also seeking escape from devices when engaging in recreational reading, which is likely to be related to the amount of screen time they are experiencing in schools and at home.
When it comes to libraries, it shouldn’t be a case of ‘Physical or digital’, but ‘Physical and digital’
With library closures and budget cuts still a threat within many communities, I hope I have provided a broad rationale for the continued funding of public and school libraries. Stay tuned, as I intend to explore individual issues, such as library spaces and ebooks, in more detail in future posts.