Visit any great city or centre of learning, and one of the focal points of culture and knowledge is the library. Considering that statistically, one in four Americans didn’t read any books last year, it is not surprising that the question of the cultural relevance and future strategy of libraries is being questioned by some.

What should libraries do to become relevant in the digital age?

They can't survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don't want to own (or for reference books we can't afford to own.) More librarians are telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals. That's not a long-term strategy, nor is it particularly an uplifting use of our tax dollars.

Source: Seth’s Blog – The future of the library


Ah, memories of the local library when I was growing up, the slightly musty smell of old books and old people filtering between towers of books and dampened by the quietness of concentration, ruled over by some stern, matronly woman with a massive bosom and the ability to catch you at whatever mischief you were contemplating.

Once the domain of learned scholars and a repository of knowledge, libraries have transformed over the past fifty years into localized storage vaults of trashy romance novels and mass produced whodunits with small sections reserved for new releases, DVDs and audio media.

This is clearly a way for these organizations to become less and less relevant every year. In our local library, I don’t see kids browsing the book shelves – they are on the computers, usually chatting on Facebook or some other website, sometimes researching for school articles. There was once a real skill in being able to find your way through a library catalogue, now computers do all the hard work for you, and from a research perspective, most of the information required can be found somewhere on the Internet these days.

Paper Books and the Future

To add to the declining relevance of paper books, does this snippet of information send chills up the spines of librarians out there?

Happy Christmas. I got a coffee pot. You? If you got a book, it’s likely that it wasn’t made of paper. The succinct title of this Amazon press release tells the whole story: “On Christmas Day, for the First Time Ever, Customers Purchased More Kindle Books Than Physical Books.”

Source: Kindle Books Outsold Real Books This Christmas

Side Question – Is it only tech geeks who shop on amazon on Christmas Day?

With more digital reading devices likely to be released in the coming year the demand for these books is going to heat up and hopefully e-book prices will drop even lower, (the production and distribution costs are minimal).

The Role of the Economy in Culture

Despite the impressive Amazon Kindle sales, the economic realities that no one seems to want to acknowledge, have played a large part in providing new patrons for local libraries.

Tawil said that the economy has been bringing in new people to the library who ordinarily had bought books and CDs.

"They are borrowing them now," she said, adding that teachers are also sending more students to the library for research rather than just allowing them to jump online to get information.

Source: Record Year is in the Books at Local Libraries – Independent Press

The library as a learning institution will survive the changing cultural times by adapting to the needs of the patrons, culturally and economically. With more information available online now than ever before, the need to adapt is ever present. There are new formats and new ways to receive information that need to be adopted to stay relevant, perhaps the library will become a predominantly digital realm, with all the effort that has gone into digitization, is there a place for libraries to have licenses to lend these materials in formats to readers – if so, at what point does the local library become merely an extension of a greater information network? (admittedly the organizational backbone already exists with interlibrary loans and other groupings of institutions).

Not everyone will give up paper, but the generations that should be learning of the joys of books and learning have pretty much left paper behind in favour of the electronic experience.

Authors Note: My family and I really enjoy the local library for all it offers, the above article is not a criticism of where libraries like Castlegar’s are at today, rather an opportunity to discuss where the may go in the future.

Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.

2 replies on “Changing Cultural Needs”

  1. This is just SO wrong, I can't even think of where to start.
    Have you not accessed EBSCOHost through your library? Thousands of magazines and their articles available to you online through your library. Canadian Newstand? Again a database of Canadian newspapers available online only through the subscription that your library maintains.
    Let's talk about  Askaway BC's online chat reference service available through your library, staffed by librarians.
    Have you downloaded an eBook or eAdiobook from your library lately? Library-to-go and BC's Library Without Walls again availble to you through your library's website.
    Where do people go for free lessons on using computers in your city? Here it is at the library.
    With many government services only available online people rely on libraries and librarians to access these websites and to navigate their way through the dizzying array of online forms.
    Yes, libraries have movies, music, Wii's, and public access computers. This isn't a shame, it's a service.

  2. @ Cassandra – For the majority of citizens, most of the reference type information they need, (at a suitable level) is available online outside of the library system and it's network of connections.

    Universities, colleges and large state or provincial libraries have traditionally been the keepers of journals and academic papers – now these are available in digital formats, the local library becomes a place where these can be requested for free or a nominal sum, rather than paying for a subscription. This is just a change in how data is managed, and society needs to adjust to that reality.

    I have downloaded audiobooks via the "Library to Go" website available in BC, and I'd challenge that this is an example of where the local library becomes a conduit rather than the keeper of such content – massively changing the way we deal with the lending of information, whole transactions can be completed online at home, in fact many of these simply cannot be completed at the library due to the licensing requirements of the software.

    Assuming societal progress continues without faltering, future generations will be even more computer savvy than the youth of today.

    Many of the challenges in this article are being expressed by librarians in the wild – maybe not in BC, but elsewhere on the planet. This is not a question of ditching the system, but ensuring it is relevant for years to come. (I thought I made that clear – my apologies!)

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