Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Why Libraries Are Important

I feel I'm going to be preaching to the converted with this post but here we go.

This morning the Museums Libraries and Archives twitter feed tweeted a link to this article posted by the Guardian about the closure of libraries in Yorkshire . The article itself doesn't concentrate on librarians views but more on the users (who are the important group here). Most users were rather horrified at the thought of their local library being marked for closure. The reporter visits an area called Eastfield, fifty miles from Scarborough. The library has been renamed a 'community resource centre' but it appears to live up to this glamorous title. According to the report only 1 in 4 homes in this area have access to the internet. The centre provides a vital resource by offering computers which is vital in the age of the digital economy. Many jobs call for basic computer literacy skills. I'm not sure if the reliance on computers is a good or a bad thing but that is a topic for another post. As well as offering computers the centre lends books and offers meeting room facilities for local groups. The average age of users did seem to be fifty and upwards. Either they filmed the report during school time or perhaps the local schools have well equipped libraries. I doubt the later is true.

One important issue highlighted here is the concept of digital poverty. I discovered this term when reading Don Tapscott's work for my Masters dissertation. As society and information moves into the digital domain, we forget people are left behind. Some people are lucky to afford to pay off their gas bill every month let alone splash out on a basic computer which still costs hundreds of pounds. You forget the monthly cost of paying for internet access as well (and the electricity to run it). This assumption that everything is online forgets that people need a decent amount of disposable income before they can consider having internet access at home.

Books, the internet, other information mediums are expensive. Libraries provide a vital centre point for access to information. That is where trained information professionals, like librarians, come into force. These individuals have spent time and effort studying navigation tools and access points for information. They know to make information available, how to help point people in the right direction. Yesterday I spent a good ten minutes trying to explain to a library user why articles they found on Google Books did not reflect the database systems and journals that the university had available. University is the first time for many people start navigating information for themselves. Without having trained individuals present to help guide them, people may find themselves overwhelmed with information whilst never finding what they are actually looking for. I am not being patronising, even after six years of being a student I still find information and research over whelming. How many times have you read an entire Wikipedia article without finding what you were looking for? That is why universities have subject librarians to help students. On a local level, outwith the education sector, a reference librarian can help the keen amateur, the confused high school student, the new parent wanting 'How to...' guides.

Although with the increase in tuition fees, many individuals may find university closed off to them. They will not have opportunities to learn how to gather and analyse information. Local libraries may find themselves picking up the slack with hardly any resources to combat it. Volunteers are useful (being a volunteer myself I have to speak up for them) but people that are time rich may lack the skills needed to provide a good service. Volunteers might be unable to see past the services they want from a library and be blind to what others want. They may choose to reduce the number of computers to make way for more Catherine Cookson books. Or sell off the DVD collection to raise more money for comfy sofas. Or they may choose to weed out books they find unsuitable for readers. Or decided to end the costly subscription to online journals because they don't see the point of it.

A user at my volunteer workplace with was so grateful for the service of the library. Without it they would not have a quiet, suitable place to study. Without the services of the librarian they would have not been able to find relevant material for their coursework. The librarian at this institution is a paid, qualified member of staff who is currently re-cataloguing the book collection. They have created a catalogue/access point that is suitable for the users of the library and is much more effort than labelling each book a different number. Without her experience and knowledge it would be impossible to navigate the available resources this institution has to offer.

Closing libraries is robbing people's entitlement to knowledge and learning. Libraries, learning and resource centres, information signals, whatever you want to call them are vitally important. In times when people's disposable income is being cut there needs to be access to resources. Not everyone can afford to buy books off Amazon nor do they have the internet access to use their service. This concept might be difficult for the Powers That Be to understand. After all, most of them were educated during an era of free grants for students. Most probably did not need to use their local library due to facilities they had in their parents' homes. They forget that not everyone has that luxury. Closure of libraries highlights the widening gap between Britain's rich and poor in society. The new poverty this decade we will see will be those who lack access to information. That is a truly depressing thought.

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