Lately public libraries have been taking a shit kicking from debt-ravaged politicians. Here in Toronto, our right-wing mayor Rob Ford had to back down from his more extreme proposals because of push back from Margaret Atwood and other well-known local authors and taxpayer petitions.
While I agree with the library fans, I also think that libraries need to do more to rethink their role as information filling stations,book lovers’ social hubs and knowledge curators. For guidance, they should look to the banks, bookstores and museums.
And they should think about how book lovers like me have changed. I haven’t updated my library card in years, partly because I share books I love with friends. I rarely go to bookstores either. For years, I ordered exactly what I wanted online. This year, I started downloading to my e-reader instead.
But I still love the concept of public libraries, as fonts of knowledge shared by all. My favorite is the main reference library, where my daughter goes for sheet music she can’t find on the internet. On my last visit, to hear a speaker rather than conduct research, I was struck by all the computers.
My local branch, which I used to frequent with my kids, is full of computers too, mostly used by students, often playing games. Many are new Canadians who don’t have computers at home, the digitally divided.
I would probably renew my library card if libraries made books as easy to acquire as money from the bank. For a long time, I’ve loved the convenience of 24/7 instant teller machines and, more recently, online banking services. I can pay bills or withdraw money in minutes. But if I order a library book online, it can take days to reach my local branch. I can download it to my Kobo in seconds and I don’t have to worry about late fines.
Libraries could be as easy as banks if they lent e-readers or laptops to the people who can’t afford them. It’s lovely that the library is letting people download digital books, but little help to those who don’t own the hardware. And think of the money the school boards could save if everyone could download their texts.
People who want more than a quick info fill could hang out in the 24/7 book lovers’ social hubs. Like automated banking machines, these would take up a fraction of the branch’s floor space and be monitored by remote cameras or librarian/security guards.
Social clubs for bookworms
Or maybe the baristas would keep an eye on things, and add revenue, if these hubs added Starbucks, like the large bookstores have. I would love to socialize more with people who read the same books as me, so much better than the emails from Amazon about the buying habits of people who have bought the same books.
Of course there will still be a place for hardcover books. But with fewer people borrowing physical books, shorter branch hours or fewer full-service branches won’t be as much of an issue.
Collect and select
In addition to becoming 24/7 information filling stations for families who can’t afford the technology and money-making social hubs for people who love to read, libraries should expand their role as information curators. With coming onslaught of e-books, the reading public will desperately need someone to sort through the new titles and curate those that are worthwhile.
With so much information out there, we already need trained experts to help us prioritize and organize. While searches are extremely helpful, algorithms cannot judge quality and relevance the way smart. objective people can.
I visit my city’s Royal Ontario Museum and Art Gallery of Ontario mostly when there’s a specially curated exhibit. I wouldn’t enjoy the exhibits if knowledgeable people hadn’t picked out the best examples to display. Can you imagine wandering through their storage areas? That’s exactly how I feel on the internet some days.
So please, librarians, become knowledge curators as well as information filling stations and book lovers’ social hubs. We still need you—but in a changing way.