Deb: What is a library without books?

Thomas Carlyle On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841).

My daughter completed an undergraduate degree without ever stepping foot into the university library

…even though she made extensive use of electronic resources provided by the library (or so she assures me). My husband is an avid user of our local library, but predominantly via his iPad. As for me, I retain a joy of hanging out in libraries and browsing the stacks.

I grew up with libraries as near-sacred repositories of knowledge. The library stood alongside museums and art galleries as an historical and cultural monument to learning and wisdom.

But as the printed word loses relevance, does it follow that the library will also become less relevant?

If asked to define a library now, most of us would probably still offer a traditional book-bound definition, but this definition does not accurately reflect what libraries are today. Once, within those monumental walls resided just about all there was to read about. But then, along came the Information Superhighway, ploughing down those hallowed walls, and forever changing the concept of a library.

Once quiet, solemn and well…frankly ”bookish” places, both public and academic libraries are now vibrant and colourful, still brimming with books, but also filled with multimedia and patrons working with shiny e-devices. Social spaces offer comfortable couches and iPad bars while library-goers work on laptops and tablets with nary a book in reach.

Unquestionably, reading remains transformative, however access to essential knowledge and information no longer relies on reading or indeed, on the printed word.

A wonderful example of the contemporary library can be seen in this video showcasing the many and varied spaces and experiences offered by the State Library of Queensland in Brisbane, including The Edge, a space conceived as a model for the library of the future, which is described on their website as being “at the forefront of re-imagining libraries for the 21st century. With a mandate to empower Queenslanders to explore creativity across art, science, technology, and enterprise, The Edge is a visionary space for ‘creating creatives’; a melting pot of ideas and innovation, capacity-building, experimentation and innovation which is part of a worldwide initiative of “re-imagining libraries for the 21st Century”.

But of course, using the library no longer relies on visiting the library building. The walls of the library have extended into a virtual space, with some venturing even farther into the next evolutionary stage. We now see the emergence of ‘bookless libraries’.

Florida Polytechnic University library for example has recently made the bold move of going bookless, offering more than 135, 000 books electronically, and BiblioTech is a fully digital public library and the first of its kind in the United States. Besides having access to a wide range of digital resources, patrons can borrow e-readers, Macbooks, iPads, and X-boxes. They operate out of a main branch which, like other public libraries, hosts regular community events including workshops, e-book clubs and lectures. This short video takes you inside what may be a prototype for the

This short video takes you inside what may be a prototype for the the library of the future.

While the above examples offer a glimpse into a digital future, for the most part renovation of libraries is not at the complete expense of print resources. Nevertheless, ‘Library 2.0’ updates, (particularly on those buildings richly steeped in history), often result in public protestation, as was the case with the recent revitalisation as a public space of the Mitchell Library Reading room in The State Library of NSW.

In 2014, an article in The Sydney Morning Herald reported on the petition signed by more than 200 people who were upset at the changes to the historic Mitchell Library.

But are these complaints merely driven by nostalgia, which in doing so ignore the realities of the times we live in?

Mitchell Library Reading Room 1988-2013.

Those Oxford dictionaries may be revered, but seriously—who doesn’t just Google the definition of a word?

While the pragmatists maintain that there is little to be gained by sitting amongst mouldy books that may never be picked up for years (if ever), others argue for the serendipitous discoveries to be had by searching the stacks, or the sensory pleasure of sitting amongst towers of books.

So, is the library still relevant?

In a recent essay in Inside Higher Ed, Wayne A. Weigand identifies three broad reasons that libraries have remained central in our communities over time: the transformative power of reading, access to information, and library as place, that is somewhere that as a significant connection to the community or individuals. We can see that the evolution of libraries unleashes new and different experiences from those we traditionally think of, but still offers transformation through reading and access to information in a variety of forms.

However, beside the many changes that centre around digital content and entertainment, many involve social engagement, creativity and alternative ways of learning. The creation of social hubs and community centres maintains the tradition of the library as place as suggested by Weigand.

In the context of serious concerns around social isolation and interpersonal disconnect caused by electronic media, this leads me to think that the library is more relevant and necessary than ever.

What do you think?

Yours in conversation,

Mitchell Library Reading Room image:

Thomas Carlyle quote:

Weigand, W.A. (October 17, 2016). How library and information studies research is shortchanging libraries. Inside Higher Ed.