Public libraries matter
Public libraries are more important than ever. In an era of rapid information growth and its resulting overload, public libraries are ideally situated to help manage and preserve it all. In a time of mistaken beliefs that all information can be easily and freely found on the internet, public libraries are well placed to help provide actual free and equitable access to and availability of information.
As Jeffrey Schnapp and Matthew Battles explain in The Library Beyond the Book: “Access to high-speed broadband networks is unevenly distributed and nowhere a given. Library visits and usage statistics in the information age, rather than contracting, have grown. And the information explosion, far from serving the needs of the burgeoning knowledge economy, intensifies the need for quality information and expertise that libraries and librarians provide.”
The internet admittedly plays a significant role in contemporary information production, dissemination, and consumption. But much of the information found online is either of questionable quality or controlled and owned by private interests. Many apparently free online information products and services – from search engines like Google and social media platforms like Facebook – are not necessarily concerned with quality information. They are more focussed on simply facilitating the creation, sharing, and use of almost any kind of information be it legitimate or fake, quality or not.
Further, these are not public institutions providing public goods and services. They are private companies providing proprietary products. They are not in business to make information freely and equitably available to all. They are in business to make money. Their focus is on profits and not the public. Their free information-related offerings are therefore not free: they come with a price.
The price is usually exacted in effectively taking over one’s personal data, selling advertising space integrated into their stuff, or charging extra or higher prices for premium features. Moreover, the growth of paid subscription services is evidence that there is a demand for what public libraries can offer.
Private information companies, whether Google, Facebook, or Netflix, are more concerned with their own private agendas, proprietary rights, and corporate profits rather than public interests.
Public libraries, not the internet, are the actual free, equitable, and altruistic information network for all. It is the information network that is for the public instead of for the profits. It is the information network that is devoted to making information available to all instead of only to the few.
It is the information network that is committed to long-term access to and preservation of information instead of short-term economic vagaries. Public libraries, in other words, offer quality information; the places, platforms, and devices on which to consume it; and the connectivity with which to access and make use of it.
It is public libraries, and not private information companies like Google or Facebook, that perform important civic, educational, and economic roles. They are free public spaces where people can come together, connect, interact, and help build, support, and enrich their communities.
They are also places for educational endeavours that present many opportunities for diverse kinds of lifelong learning, literacy development and promotion, and knowledge creation and dissemination. They are also places for economic development that support local businesses and entrepreneurs.
As John Palfrey argues in BiblioTech, public libraries play vital roles in public life. For example, they provide “networks of digital media that can be loaned for free, not purchased; ‘makerspaces’ that offer equipment so that people can make instead of simply consume culture; easily accessible and networked archives of national heritage; job-search centres; clinics for the technologically illiterate and refuges for those who cannot afford new media – all of this in addition to their current functions.”
Nevertheless, there is a misplaced debate about the future of public libraries as a battle between the traditional and the technological, between paper and pixels, between the physical and the virtual. Yet there is no battle; instead, there is a growing convergence.
As Schnapp and Battles note, after all, “in the context of a networked world where the physical and the virtual, the offline and the online, are intertwined with increasing intimacy”.
Thus, to be responsive to diverse kinds of information needs, public libraries need to be both traditional, with real-world buildings and services, and technological, with online presences, apps, and features. Public libraries are adapting their collections and services to relevant technological changes by transforming into hybrid public places where the analog and digital are integrated. The New York Public Library exemplifies this hybrid approach.
In ‘How libraries can compete with Google and Amazon’, Sonali Kohli describes how the reach of the New York Public Library “extends beyond the walls of its 65 physical branches. Dotting the borough are thousands of New Yorkers logged into their own mini-libraries, using the library’s mobile app to do research for homework, or the WiFi hotspots they checked out to fill in the holes in broadband access at home, or accessing e-books on one of the libraries’ tablets they can take home”.
Throughout the country, library initiatives are emerging to keep up with technological advances. Public libraries, after all, transform people through access to information, whether through access to books, digital products and services, electronic devices, or wifi connections.
Public libraries, moreover, are devoted to the long-term preservation of information. Although private information companies may help create, collect, present, and manage information, they are not necessarily concerned about most of that information’s long-term availability or existence. They may not care about the implications on and for information if their businesses are shuttered or their own systems, services, or devices are discontinued.
The priorities, projects, and profits of these private information companies are subject to the vagaries of business needs and economic changes. Public libraries, however, are committed to helping ensure that information is available and accessible for both the present and the future.
They offer what private information companies and the internet do not provide: the collection, maintenance, management, and preservation of information for the long-term. Unlike private companies, they are in the forever business insofar as information is concerned.
Public libraries matter more than ever in this internet age. As Palfrey argues, “an overwhelming amount of information, access to which is marked by the same stark inequality that exists between economic classes, demands to be moderated for the public good, and libraries are the institutions that do that”.
It is public libraries instead of private information companies that help fulfill information’s many promises for our lives and world.
Marc Kosciejew is a University of Malta lecturer and the chairman of the Malta Libraries Council.