Be honest, when was the last time you borrowed a library book? Do you even know where your library card is? I know where mine is, but if you blew the dust off my file and looked up the last book I actually borrowed – it’s fair to say it would be from a time when curtain haircuts were all the rage and people thought Tony Blair was cool.
And I’m an avid reader.
And it’s behavior like mine that has got librarians and book lovers across the land panicked. If even someone as in love with books as me isn’t using their library, what hope does the institution, one that has existed for thousands of years, have of surviving the next decade?
It’s said that 10% of libraries are under threat in the UK, and few are happy about it. Petitions have been signed, authors have spoken out and people have stomped angry feet. How dare we lose our birthright! Boo! Hiss! Heckle!
The truth is, in my crystal ball at least, this is nonsense. Libraries aren’t closing, they are opening, and they are aren’t just opening, they are BOOMING.
Confused? Well, let me wheel out some evidence.
People who say libraries are dead are missing the point. Film didn’t die with the fall of betamax and VHS. It continued, it was just fed to us in a different format. And as it goes the film analogy is rather pertinent. With more and more film rental stores going under, the death of the library (their book lending cousin) seems as much a certainty as there being another James Bond film.
But how can something fall by the wayside when the product it offers is more in demand than ever? This is the information age after all. How can libraries go bust? DVD stores have given way to Amazon and Netflix, as such I’d wager there’s more people watching films now than ever before. The same with the internet. There are more people reading/learning now than any other time during our history. Who hasn’t fallen down a Wikipedia black hole, clicking link after link, as if you’re some Johnny 5 needing ‘input! input!’
Libraries have never been about books, they are about knowledge. They are a place we can go when we want to learn. And, for thousands of years, the model of physically going to a warehouse filled with dusty books has been the best (and only) method we’ve had, that was until it was usurped by the digital whizz kid that is the internet. Our desire for knowledge hasn’t changed, in fact it’s grown, and as a result we’ve evolved the way we consume it, wanting more of it, at all times. We didn’t want the library to be a place we went once a week, we wanted libraries in our pockets. And that’s what we’ve got. Yay, us.
And now we’ve got that surely librarians the world over can rejoice and Quantum Leap back to whatever planet (and it’s probably a fastidiously organized planet) they come from?
Not quite. They still have work to do.
You see, as the library evolves, so will librarians, and they (and the role they perform) are now more important than ever. The volume of data added to the internet each day must be incredible, and there’s only so much clever algorithms can do when it comes to filtering and filing search returns. The most popular search engine in the future will either be ‘the cheapest’ or the ‘the most accurate’ – I’d fully expect a people to buy a google subscription in the future, the same way you’d hire a hunter to take you through jungle. You want the best guide to get you to where you want to be, and who is better placed to manage and file and oversee all the internet data than librarians?
So, far from it being all boo-hoo and tears, librarians find themselves working in one of the most in-deman fields which will grow exponentially. They just won’t work in a building we consider a library. They’ll shape and manage the internet, organizing data so it doesn’t swamp us. Search engines and data providers need librarians if they want to provide us with what we want, not what a search return thinks we want.
But what of physical libraries?
They will still exist, but not as we know them now. People will only go libraries when they give them something the internet can’t – access to physical things, first editions and items of curiosity – I wouldn’t be surprised if libraries merged with museums. The books may go, but more and more people will use libraries as a physical hub to share knowledge, to use Wifi and find peace and quiet. Maybe in years to come the word ‘library’ will come to mean ‘physical internet’.