When Andrew Carnegie established the first public library in the 1880s, his founding principle was that libraries should provide information that was ‘free to the people’. Traditionally libraries had been the preserve of the elite, open only to those who belonged to ecclesiastical or academic institutions or private libraries. He wanted everyone to have the opportunity to learn and better themselves, no matter what their social or economic class. When the first public libraries were built, Carnegie didn’t skimp on the architecture. With classical detailing, marble foyers, leafy atriums, elegant reading rooms, comfortable seating, they were splendid edifices that the community could be proud of. Public libraries are one of the few places in the community where people can spend time without having to buy anything, or pay a membership or admission fee.
Even if you are well off enough to be able to buy and collect books, or have access to the internet at home, libraries are vital for all communities. When I established a library at the school where I taught in Malawi, the pupils queued around the classroom block for their turn to read the magazines and books that had been collected via overseas donations. In the absence of television or the internet, the library was a gateway to understanding the world around them and experiencing the world beyond. Communities will go to extraordinary lengths to establish libraries, from travelling donkeys and a refurbished military tank (called the ‘weapon of mass instruction’) in South America, to a garden library for refugees in Israel that views ‘the right to a book as a fundamental human right and a possibility of both escape and shelter from daily misfortunes’.
With the advent of the digital age, Bill Gates took up Carnegie’s mission as a major donor to global libraries. When he dropped out of Harvard to develop a computer business, he spent his remaining time in libraries, reading. And as his business grew, he knew that computers would be essential tools for learning, and had to be available for everyone. Over 20 years he invested more than $20 billion in libraries across the world, funding computers and the installation of broadband. If computers were going to provide a new means for accessing information, then libraries had to be at the forefront of providing access to the new digital age for every citizen. Libraries are the only provider of free public access to computers and the internet.
In the secondary education sector, libraries are essential, although they are oddly sometimes side-lined as an academic priority. Many of the new academies have been built with libraries ‘at the heart of the school’, meaning a bustling, social, transit hub with computers, but few actual resources to provide adequate support for reading, study or independent research.
Our library maintains its shelf stacks, heaving with books, and we have an active purchasing programme. We also invest thousands in annual subscription fees for digital resources. How many times have I had to respond to questions about our generous book collection, as if its upkeep is just a nod to tradition? Our book and our digital resources sit side-by-side and are consulted in equal measure for pleasure and for work.
The plethora of information available on the internet is untamed and untrustworthy. Most of it does not stand up to academic scrutiny of authorship, currency, reliability, accuracy. Researchers and critics who write for their living do not publish their work for free on the internet, they look for publishing contracts. Libraries then stock these edited, fact-checked, authoritative books which provide the reliable sources that comprise any worthwhile bibliography.
"Libraries have always embraced technology, adopting, inventing and evolving new ways to manage and preserve data"Leigh Giurlando - Head Librarian
The online academic journals, digital archives and electronic books that are accessed by subscriptions provide a wealth of information beyond the physical confines of the library. But they are paid for and managed by libraries, which allocate significant portions of their budgets to online subscriptions.
Libraries have always embraced technology, adopting, inventing and evolving new ways to manage and preserve data. With so much data to manage, why wouldn’t they? When I first worked in a public library in 1972, we used an IBM punch card system to issue books, which was obviously much more efficient than manually recording the loans. Libraries make it their mission to manage emerging technologies and provide access to information whatever the platform. That even includes the preservation of the information that is uploaded to the internet every day.
Big libraries with a lot of muscle are involved with digital web archiving, selecting and preserving the information that has been published on the internet. Unlike with books, digital information has no inherent permanence. In a recent study of the websites that the Bodleian Library had archived over the last ten years, they found that ten percent of the sites they had saved in 2013 had disappeared or were inaccessible, and that ninety percent of the sites from 2004 were simply gone.
When the BBC announced that it was ‘archiving’ its online recipe pages as part of a £15 million cost saving exercise (moving the pages beyond the indexing reach of a search engine), 200,000 readers signed an online petition. The BBC did change tack, and announced that it would consolidate the recipes on another existing site. But historians and readers could have been reassured by news from the British Library, which had already been web archiving the BBC site (mostly news) for ten years. They will extend their web crawl to preserve the recipe pages. The Library of Iceland and the Library of Alexandria reported that they already had archived the pages.
The problem is that technology moves on so quickly, information recorded on early platforms can no longer easily be retrieved. Lending of our DVDs has collapsed, because most pupils come to school with devices that no longer have disk drives. Soon the disks will go the way of cassette and VHS tapes, and an archive of films will only be available on subscription.
You might be old enough to remember the age of the microfilm, when libraries rushed to embrace the new technology that allowed them to photograph newspapers and books and then discard the bulky bound paper copies that took up shelf space. The issue with microfilm is that the quality of the image is often poor, cutting off edges, or omitting details that historians would find telling in a paper copy, and then the film itself has proved to be impermanent. With the medium now so degraded, and with so few machines available to access this now defunct technology, the history recorded in hundreds of newspapers has been lost. Microfilming and digitising are important for preserving, conserving and providing wider access to material, but we should not allow technology to replace hard copies.
At the risk of sounding like Chicken Licken, I do fret about the digital sky crashing in. Everyday more information is upload to the internet than has been produced throughout history. Four hundred hours of videos are uploaded to YouTube every minute. We worry about global warming, but are so hooked on digital media, we don’t want to acknowledge the potential for its impact on geopolitics. The ‘conflict minerals’ required to manufacture our devices are mined in politically volatile and dysfunctional states, and the energy required to just maintain Google’s data centres is equivalent to the power used by 200,000 homes (2011).
We also need to be wary of how a handful of global businesses are now managing the world’s access to online information. The ancient Library of Alexandrian mission was to collect all the world’s information. Google mirrored this ambition in its own mission statement, aiming to organise all the world’s information. This has a lofty, philanthropic ring to it. However, ‘Google is not your friend’. It is there to make money. It wants you to click on the easy-to-find ads to make money. It doesn’t want to be a good search engine, it wants to sell ads.
Its Google Books project is hailed as a free resource that ‘democratises knowledge’, providing full text access to university library collections of out-of-copyright books, now numbering at least 25 million books. A select number of university libraries are collaborating with Google on this project, which is so advanced, no other commercial enterprise is able to compete. A number of copyright challenges and digital issues (it is estimated that 80 percent of the scanned books contain digital reader errors) challenge Google’s progress. But once Google establishes its monopoly on access to these sources, how long will it remain free? Only Google knows.
Repeatedly, we place our trust in the latest technological development, optimistically assuming that ease of use indicates a permanence. Individuals cannot always afford to keep pace with the changes that affect access to information. With proper funding, though, libraries can ensure that information is always available, no matter what the platform. Libraries are places for reading, research, learning and study, and so much more these days, as public libraries creatively reinvent their services in order to keep their diminishing slice of public funding. Libraries exist to serve the community, not to exploit it.
It is immensely satisfying to reveal the bounty of JSTOR’s esoteric resources to a budding researcher, or to watch a beaming 12-year-old pupil rush out of the library clutching an oversized book about treehouses.
Libraries straddle a delight in and respect for the old, and a curiosity about and anticipation of the new, whatever it heralds.