libraryA Texas public library. BroadbandUSA


When my father was a college student in Saskatchewan, a province of Canada then devastated by the Great Depression (1930s), the college librarian would not let students consult a book if she knew the answer to the student’s question. That was for fear of damage to the book.

Books were in very short supply, as were all necessities of life.

Times change. One day in late 2013 in Ottawa, winter closing in, I found myself without Internet access (a telecom glitch). And my laptop had died at the same time, so the local WiFi coffee shop was no use.

So for the first time, I located and visited the local public library. There were stacks of books, to be sure, but almost all patrons were using the library’s computers—which I also did until my new modem arrived by express post the next day.

I thought the staff were lovely people. But now that the modem and router and laptop work, I haven’t been back since.

If those devices failed and the laptop died again, I’d head right back out into the polar vortex, to the library.

Twenty years ago, I was a regular library patron for print materials. But as the years wore on, I noticed a pattern: More and more, I was taking out audiobooks and DVDs for an aged and largely housebound relative who had never used the Internet. And the library was a wonderful boon for her.

But within a decade and a half, almost everyone in her age group will know how to use the Internet. How will that affect libraries, and learning?

There are those who say, no books, no knowledge. I’m not sure.

I can see: No transmission of information, no knowledge. But today, information can be transmitted in a variety of ways. Indeed, that is part of the nature of information.

So maybe we need to ask, what is the library doing that we can’t discard?

One use is simply to store information that has not yet been digitized or not digitized effectively. Whitney Kimball at Hopes and Fears warns,

Recently, Google Vice President and “father of the Internet” Vint Cerf warned that we might be headed for a “digital Dark Age”, a massive loss of information with obsolete file types and hardware. That’s an especially dire prophecy in an era when digitization is rapidly eclipsing print media, artificial intelligence is perfecting search queries, and drastic upheavals are quietly underfoot at the world’s historic libraries.

Librarians are well placed to prevent such losses of information.

Libraries can also be places where we learn the skills to find what we are looking for in the tsunami of global information. And, perhaps more important, how to assess whether a source is credible and to identify risks.

Young people can learn, through low pressure library visits, the genuine risks—as well as benefits—of social media. For example, how is it that people we don’t know anything about personally are some of our 11,000 closest “friends”?

That used to happen to royalty or celebrities. Now it can happen to anyone. But we must all be aware of the risks in that case.

Librarians are also in a good position to sponsor talks, with video aids, to help young people deal appropriately with, say a troll or a potential abuser.

Public libraries could also strive to be balanced sources of information.

The Pew polling organization’s recent research project on the Internet addressed the future of libraries. Younger Americans were found to be less likely than older ones to be concerned that library closings would affect them, not because they did not use the library, perhaps, but because they were more likely to use it online.

One librarian, Steve Coffman, puts it like this:

In short, I believe there is still opportunity for librarians in a post-print world. And we won’t have to stray far from our traditional roles to find it. Aggregation, curation, and reference become even more important in a digital world, where millions of books and terabytes of other content are produced every year. However, with all content becoming electronic, others can also perform the aggregation, curation, and reference, giving us some pretty formidable competition. But no current service yet adds up to everything you could get from an honest-to-God librarian who is an expert in handling information and completely dedicated professionally to the user’s interest.


Next: What happens when bookstores close: One writers’ group’s experience

The TEDx speaker below defends the importance of public libraries for helping disadvantaged people bridge the technology gap:

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...