As some of you are aware, British public libraries are facing hard times, possibly harder than American public libraries, prompting this bit from Auntie Beeb, Are libraries finished? Five arguments for and against. The good news is that the “against” arguments aren’t that great. The bad news….
We can see for ourselves. Here are the five “for” arguments, thing found “only at a library”:
1. Specialist research
2. Environment to learn
3. Expert staff
4. Free internet access
5. Engage in local democracy
“Specialist research,” as described in the article, really just means that libraries have things available in print that aren’t online, especially historical collections that should be maintained. That’s not much of an argument for libraries as living institutions, though it does have the merit of being true.
Libraries do provide an environment to learn, but much of that argument is devoted to “lonely people.” One librarian claims that “some lonely people would be even more isolated by being left on their own in a room trying to use the internet.” Aww, the poor lonely people. Let’s build a library so they can stare silently at computer screens surrounded by lots of other people staring silently at computer screens.
Supposedly, “Librarians have specialist knowledge and are trained to find reliable information and evaluate it – a skill as relevant in the digital age as it has always been,” and the example is navigating medical websites for information because Google is so confusing. Yeah, maybe, but it’s funny how I never hear from my non-librarian friends that they find Internet searching confusing and need some “expert” guidance.
Librarians in the U.S. also like to tout free Internet access, but that’s not something that requires libraries. Libraries provide it now because libraries already existed. It might be cheaper to give everyone a laptop and provide free wifi in public buildings.
Another complaint: “The problem with the internet is people flock together and have similar views, there’s no real dialogue between people who have different views,” Libraries can hold discussion groups where people can talk to others who don’t already agree with them. This ignores the obvious fact that people don’t want to hear from others they disagree with, which is why they flock together on the Internet in the first place.
The opposition is even worse, though. What we get “only online”:
2. Digital books
3. Comfort in numbers
4. Brings niches together
It’s easier to search online than in books. However, this ignores that a significant amount of library content is online, and is available only because libraries pay for it. Lots of stuff is “only in Ebsco.” Try affording that stuff without a library.
The digital books argument is pretty bad, too. “For those who can afford a portable reader like a Kindle or iPad, the convenience of accessing books on a beach, up a mountain, or anywhere else for that matter, can be irresistible.” And for those who can’t afford one, the inconvenience of remaining ignorant and illiterate isn’t worth bothering about. It also makes it sound like once you get the device, free books just arrive.
“Sometimes the right answer just comes when people ask each other questions on forums.” This is true, and the Internet is good for this, if you can find the right forum. And, speaking as a librarian, I’m glad that this person asking if she was possessed while playing with a Ouija board went to Yahoo Answers instead of my library.
Thanks to the power of the Internet, people in the demon-possessed niche can find each other more easily than ever, which I suppose should also be celebrated. If they’re busy nattering with each other in a chat room, it keeps them from nattering to me on the subway.
Self-publishing as an online-only phenomenon and a strength of the Internet is wrong on both counts. “You used to only be able to publish news by owning the printed presses, and you needed a publisher to agree to publish your book, now you can publish books on demand.” There have always been vanity presses, and most writing is crap, whoever publishes it. I still can’t figure out what this has to do with libraries, since they’ve never published much.
As usual, the comments might be even more thoughtless than the arguments in the article. This one is a howler:
“If the searches on the internet became more accurate and tablets became cheap, then we really don’t need libraries. One can carry thousands of e-books, that would be such a convenience and one doesn’t has to care about the wear-n-tear of the e-book. Libraries should be converted to museums and should be preserved for the future generation. We should promote digital books and reduce paper demand.”
It assumes some utopia where every book you want to read is both findable and free online. Where is this utopia? I want to go live there.
Like some of the “against” arguments, it also assumes that libraries don’t provide ebooks, or that you can actually make a distinction these days between libraries and the Internet. These arguments sound like they’re made by people who haven’t set foot in a library for 15 years.
This is a tough debate to decide, because both sides are poorly represented. I’d go with the libraries on this one, though, because the “only online” arguments are so obviously ill informed about both libraries and the Internet that it’s impossible to take them seriously. Since the BBC is run by a bunch of library-loving socialists, maybe that was the whole point of the article.