Library 2.0

What does the future hold for our university libraries? Are they obsolete or are they essential? The library has long been seen by many as a very traditional, conservative institution, and is often portrayed as a place where rows upon rows of antiquated book shelves slowly gather dust. Yet a visit to the university library today will reveal a substantial investment in technology to streamline research and provide users with a more seamless and rewarding experience.

Just how are libraries adapting to the digital age and all it brings? In the past they have been a pivotal part of university life. They are not simply a repository of books and learning resources, although many may see them as just that. If all libraries did was store and loan out books, their doors would have closed years ago. The digital age would have put paid to them. In an era where digital media holds sway, and where online stores such as Amazon announce they are now selling more Kindle and e-versions of books than paper versions, what will be the future for the university library? What changes are they making that bring them into the digital age, and enable them to compete with current advances in technology?

Firstly, libraries offer specialised search services which go beyond the simple searches you can perform on Google or other search engines. Publications such as Kelly et al's Library 2.0 indicate the trends away from traditional repository approaches to a more distributed range of digital services for staff and students, with particular emphasis on the tools students are already familiar with - Web 2.0 social media.

Secondly, as Ian Clarke (2010) suggests in his Guardian article, we still need libraries because they inform users about best practice in the use of search tools and the promotion of better digital literacies. Clarke also shows how libraries can bridge the digital divide, arguing: "Libraries are a bridge between the information-rich and the information-poor. They need reinforcing, not dismantling. We need to continue to provide a highly skilled service that is able to meet the needs of the general public." He warns though, that libraries must continue to innovate and keep pace with the changes fomented by digital media, because without the services they offer, we would run the risk of living in an ill-informed society. It's not difficult to see that this perspective is influenced by the rise in informal learning, but those who are engaged in formal education also rely on centralised library services.

The College Online website provides an excellent list of reasons why librarians are not obselete that includes arguments about the changing roles of librarians, but in essence focuses on practicalities. One reason offered is that not everything is on the Internet.  Whilst this is still a reasonable argument to make at present, we can speculate that this may not always be the case. How long will it take to digitise everything so that it becomes available online? The advent of Google Books, Amazon's Look Inside feature and other similar services offer potential readers a preview of the insides of books and other artefacts. Although the entire book may only be readable on purchase, it may not be long before the open access movement gains enough ground to facilitate the digitisation of everything - for free. Some authors and publishers will resist the open movement, but if they do, they are likely to find themselves marginalised from the literary world and on the periphery of the global reading experience. The digitisation of difficult to find materials is sensible and sustainable. Readers can now access a great many historical maps, genealogical records or rare volumes without leaving their armchairs. But there is still a great deal to achieve in the grand plan to digitise everything, and there are those who are opposed to the very idea.

More convincing is the argument that library attendance isn't falling, it's just migrating to virtual attendance. By this, the writer is arguing that more users are deciding to access library services online, and with more university libraries digitising their content and services, this seems to be a rising trend. If so, what becomes of the physical library space in the future? This is a question each library must answer in its own way, because each library is different. Will some for example, begin to repurpose their spaces to provide different services? Will some create culturally and socially rich environments which will attract users back into the physical space? Or will they instead downscale their physical footprint to enable the funding of other digital services that require less groundspace?

In a future blogpost, I will report back on the librarians' perspective on these and other related questions. I will also present a keynote speech at the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals of Scotland (CILIPS) conference in Dundee on June 11 - where I will elaborate on this discussion.

References

Clarke, I. (2010) Why we still need libraries in the digital age. The Guardian, 13 July. Available online at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jul/13/internet-age-still-need-libraries (Accessed 2 March, 2012)

Kelly, B., Bevan, P., Akerman, R., Alcock, J. and Fraser, J., (2009) Library 2.0: balancing the risks and benefits to maximise the dividends. Program Electronic Library and Information Systems, 43 (3), 311-327. Available online at: http://opus.bath.ac.uk/15260/ (Accessed 2 March, 2012)

Picture by Steve Wheeler (Victoria State Library, Melbourne, Australia)


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Library 2.0 by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Comments

Carole said…
I have noticed informal libraries popping up. I posted about it http://caroleschatter.blogspot.co.nz/2012/02/phone-booth-libraries-in-new-york.html
Simon Ensor said…
Shh silence. Another timely piece. Occupying library space this year brought us to work as a team with information specialists left underused by the perception that a library was just about books. Learned a great deal, new enhanced program to develop critical thinking and new literacies for 2012-13. We need to reassess thinking and learning and research spaces. Documentalistes as we call them here have never been so important.
@grayseawhite said…
Steve,
Would you see the new space with more Macs or still lots of PC's?
Steve Wheeler said…
@greyseawhite (Gracie?) interesting question. I think neither, because BYOD will be the next wave.
Mr Philp said…
I saw someone tweet recently that 'libraries are hospitals for the mind'. Not sure if I completely agree with that - I have some good friends who are psychiatrists.

Anyway, the new Library of Birmingham is an amazing place - I've just come back from a kidsmeet there with 60 children from my school and it is an inspiring structure, full of a real buzz of people, technology, thinking spaces, working spaces, archive rooms, coffee shops and even books. We've started a blog on the theme 'Libraries Inspire Learning' at http://librariesinspirelearning.blogspot.co.uk/ because in our experience, libraries do, in fact, inspire learning.
Unknown said…
Great piece, Steve. Lots to think about. Love the emphasis on informal learning and Open Access. Libraries of the future (and present!) will be (are) not only digital, but agile and mobile spaces that allow patrons to have access to library resources any time and anywhere. I am particularly interested in the participatory nature of libraries and the ways we can continue to leverage that. I feel lucky to be a librarian. It's such an exciting time.

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