“Why Libraries?”

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

When I was finishing my undergraduate years at Lakehead in 2015, I had a conversation with a fellow student about my decision to enter the Masters of Library and Information Studies program at the University of Alberta. He then asked me a question that has recurred in various forms and from various people in the years since. “Libraries? Aren’t they dying out? Everything is going digital, isn’t it?” In 2015, I wasn’t really prepared to offer an answer- how could I respond to the suggestion that my chosen vocation might be one which was dying?

One thing that has struck me as I learned the history of libraries in my coursework was just how good libraries are at dealing with change. Despite their reputation as stalwart edifices (and they are that, for better or worse), libraries have been excellent at adapting to social and technological changes. From the very beginning, librarians have grappled with just what it was we were doing, what form libraries should take, and what the appropriate boundaries for the profession were. Early libraries were very different from today’s  – even including popular fiction in the collection was considered morally suspect, for instance –  but eventually the concept of what a public library is came to include things like children’s books, programs, computerized catalogues, and internet access.

When I think about recent changes and what they mean, I have found it helpful to tell people that libraries are not about access to books – they are about access to knowledge. Paper-based books are a large part of that knowledge, of course, but if you look at a library’s offerings today you’ll find a number of things that are not books at all, but do support the idea of knowledge sharing. Extending the idea, it’s not only sharing but also the creation of new ideas as people meet and interact. Libraries have been likened to a “community living room”, but it might be more accurate to call them a “community kitchen” – a place where we gather to create something new that is shared by all.

An excellent example of knowledge sharing and creation resides in the idea of library space as public space. The Thunder Bay Public Library has done programs for the public for decades, but we also offer spaces for groups to gather and share. From knitting circles to public lectures to a simple table where people meet and talk about the day, our communities share knowledge with each other in a way in which physical books may not even make an appearance. These spaces are one of the few remaining public places where one does not need to pay a fee to enter, and the knowledge is shared freely.

The digital aspect of knowledge sharing makes its appearance with the rise of the internet. As we continue into the 2020s, it has become more apparent that the flood of digital knowledge is not only prohibitively large but can also be deceptive, misleading or simply incorrect. Libraries act as a guide to digital literacy – we not only offer internet access, we can help users navigate and assess what they find. Google searching is a fairly simple thing to do, but a basic search lacks context and an understanding of what a user may truly be looking for. Librarians have a lot of experience with getting the context behind a patron’s search request that, at least at this point, search engines cannot replicate. Understanding this context means that they can tailor information searches more precisely to a patron’s needs.

This reconception of public libraries is not always an easy one to make. Because libraries have been an institution for centuries, they have a strong cultural identity in the minds of the public. The idea of a library as a quiet, solemn temple of reading is no longer accurate, and has not been accurate for decades in most places. The most difficult task librarians may face in the future is sharing what libraries are and what they must become as they change along with our world.

Ryan Gracey – www.tbpl.ca. If you have a comment about today’s column, we would love to hear from you. Please comment below!

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