Continuing the theme from the last post, I wanted to address some of the other comments made about the Library as part of the Town’s online budget survey.
Many of the comments questioned the need for a library in the 21st century. A few samples:
“Most people use e-books, internet today.”
“Why can’t our public library be an on line site only?”
“There may [be] better alternatives to invest in given the technology and better accessibility to information nowadays.”
“Make everything digital and get with the time.”
“The days of going to a library to check out a book have passed.”
My heart sank on reading these, because it means that public libraries have not done a very good job at getting the message out about how much we’ve evolved.
People are still reading books and they remain a huge part of the library business. In fact, circulation of physical materials (mostly books) was up 5% in Newmarket in 2015 over 2014. Books have maintained, and even increased, in their allure to the reading public. It is hard to beat a book for usability, presentation, and serendipitous discovery, and hard to beat the collection of a public library to discover and use it for free in an unlimited fashion.
But the world is changing. People no longer want to be limited to just what their local library can afford to buy. People are looking for the immediacy of a digital download on a portable device. People are willing to pay for Internet access, but could never afford to pay for the incredible volume of content they consume. The Internet is full of great content that you don’t have to pay for, but the best digital content–especially the literary, the artistic, the musical, the authoritative–is often still a product that needs to be purchased.
That’s where the library comes in. As we have always done with books, we pay for access to a wealth of digital content that the community can then share. You want music? We have Freegal, free downloads and streaming. You want to learn? We have online Gale Courses. You want e-books? We have those too. Not to say that the library exists only to bulk-pay for content. We are online, but we are not only online. Our physical presence is where the digital content, the technology to access it, the learning, the community contact, and the space to study and collaborate all come together.
This isn’t to say that we could not do a lot more. One of the things we have not been able to get going in Ontario is a common digital library for all residents, available through all types of libraries. Other provinces have it–the best example is Alberta–but in Ontario, the best we have been able to accomplish is coordinated bulk purchasing for libraries that can afford it. That means it is still a patchwork out there. On top of that, the e-content public libraries buy is not licensed for use in schools, who are struggling themselves to afford their own access. And the large publishers are charging public libraries several times the retail price for e-books.
And a final word about costs. Many people, including some of the commentators above, seem to assume that putting things online is simple and cheap. That could not be farther from the truth. The costs and complications of digitizing, hosting, licensing etc are huge. We can’t “make everything digital” overnight (and, of course, can’t legally digitize most books we own). The opportunity, of course, is for digital content, once created, to be shared more widely then ever possible before. That makes libraries better and even more essential than ever.