“Close down the lending libraries and buy every citizen an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription,” Forbes contributor Tim Worstall wrote in July 2014, arguing that his native U.K. might thus save a lot of taxpayers’ money.
Given that the amount of new digital content produced in 2011 amounts to several million times the combined contents of every book ever written, it is easy to see why technology-fascinated experts and non-specialists alike have propagated the idea that libraries will soon fall prey to Google, Amazon, and other technological giants. However, public libraries around the globe are increasingly disproving hardcore pessimists like Worstall and others who find libraries irrelevant in the modern age. Simply put, these pessimists make a fundamental mistake: They look at libraries as reactionary spaces filled with nothing but shelves.
Another feature of the modern age is the expanding gulf between the information rich and the information poor. According to the Pew Research Center, adults with more education, higher household incomes, and more technologies connected to the Internet “are more likely to be participants in today’s educational ecosystem and to use information technology to navigate the world.”
The digital divide poses numerous challenges in affluent countries like the United States, as well as in poorer and smaller countries like Bulgaria (where I come from). Gone are the days in which functional literacy, i.e., being able to read and write and do basic math, is enough for people to find their way around. The Internet bombards us with so many blocks of text, images, and videos that online navigation is turning into an increasingly complex and, for those lacking information literacy skills, mind-boggling enterprise.
“With all these technologies, libraries are becoming more important because the process of critically sifting out information and finding the right information will be growing more important,” explains Spaska Tarandova, director of the Global Libraries Foundation in Bulgaria. “The freedom of space requires that one has basic skills in evaluating which resource is reliable [and] which one is the product of someone’s imagination and speculation.”
Many people, particularly the young, have a fundamentally incorrect understanding of information literacy, says Elitsa Lozanova-Belcheva, a researcher and professor at Sofia University who has also worked as a librarian. Young people, she says, interpret information literacy as the ability to do a simple Google search, write and read emails, and chat with friends on Facebook. These and other activities are a long way from information literacy, she says, and that’s why most people should go through training to master more of the resources available online.
Lozanova-Belcheva, who is now working on an advanced information literacy program for Sofia University students, believes all universities should train their students how to search for, evaluate, verify, present, and disseminate information.
Around 960 of the 2,800 public libraries in Bulgaria have between three and 25 computers, and many offer free courses in basic computer competency. Most of the participants in these courses are elderly people who have computers at home but don’t know how to use them because their relatives don’t have the time or patience to give them a hand. Along with computer literacy, some regional libraries in Bulgaria offer other life-long learning services, for example language courses, often in cooperation with universities, local institutions, foundations, and volunteers.
Public libraries in Bulgaria and many other countries benefit the less privileged members of the communities outside the capital city. Lozanova-Belcheva agrees with Tarandova that libraries can help bridge the digital divide. She explains that this divide is still more serious when one takes into account ethnic minorities, such as the Roma in Bulgaria, and citizens with disabilities who face a greater risk of social exclusion. Properly maintained public libraries empower minority communities by providing access to modern technologies and the training to use these technologies for education- and work-related purposes.
In addition to information and computer literacy, libraries have discovered another promising niche: e-government.
“Over the past few years, libraries have come to serve as an intermediary between [citizens and authorities] through e-government services,” says Lozanova-Belcheva, explaining that some libraries in the U.S. have e-government librarians who help users navigate the sea of administrative and oftentimes incomprehensible language of modern-day bureaucracies. “Global trends show that users themselves prefer to use e-government services through the library because they trust this institution.”
E-government services, through which citizens can access administrative information and contact public institutions and officials from a distance, have now left the confines of American libraries and have popped up in their counterparts in Bulgaria.
The regional library in the town of Ruse, founded in 1888, has incorporated its commitment to providing e-government assistance in its mission statement. The library aims, among other goals, to “encourage and help people in their using our e-government services” and “work toward the integration of all community members in the global information society.”
The Ruse Regional Library’s free e-government package comprises three areas: labor and employment, health, and finance.
The labor and employment section provides users with job search instructions, tips for notching up the perfect CV and cover letter, and recommendations for impressing employers during job interviews. Citizens interested in, say, checking their health insurance status, receiving medical assistance in the region, or buying special equipment for people with disabilities, can find out what they should do with just several clicks of the mouse. The library website also has useful information for people less knowledgeable about financial matters, for example about family budgets, bank accounts and services, and loan application procedures.
2. Improved Library Offerings to Meet Users’ Needs
To remain relevant and sustainable, libraries worldwide have started to reform themselves, revolutionizing both their appearance and their offerings. “The libraries of the 21st century are those that have moved away from concentrating on content toward concentrating on both users and content,” Roberta Stevens, former president of the American Library Association (ALA), said during her visit in Bulgaria a few years ago.
American libraries give cues in this paradigm shift. “The library in West Hartford, Conn., offers conversational English classes for immigrants,” Deborah Fallows wrote in the March 2016 edition of The Atlantic. “The library in Seattle provides citizenship classes. The library in Duluth, Minnesota, has a seed-lending program for local gardeners. The library in Washington, D.C., offers tango dancing on Saturday afternoons. In libraries, I have practiced yoga and tai chi, sipped lattes in coffee shops, and watched Millennials with laptops arrange their virtual start-up offices at long reading-room tables. Libraries serve as anchors in times of distress: The library in Ferguson, Missouri, kept its doors open even when schools were closed, and libraries in New Jersey became places of refuge after Hurricane Sandy.”
Several Iowa libraries helped people prepare for the February caucuses by acquainting them with voting procedures and sites, the candidates and their campaigns, the media and useful online resources.
Nevena Mitropolitska, a Bulgarian novelist based in Canada, points out that in the digital era people may actually yearn for more face-to-face communication. “They now talk of the library as ‘the third place’ between home and the office, a place where people can feel comfortable enough outside their homes and have the opportunity to make contacts,” says Mitropolitska, who has experience as journalist and librarian.
Similar developments are taking place on the other side of the Atlantic.
The Cologne City Library in Germany gives important insights into the future of libraries. Visitors there have increased by 60 percent since Hannelore Vogt took over as head librarian in 2009, reflecting the trend of rising membership numbers and checkout rates across many of the approximately 3,800 public libraries in the country of writers and philosophers. While its key target group includes millennials between 20 and 30, the Cologne City Library has attracted visitors of different age, education, and social backgrounds. “The modern library is not limited to books or media,” says Vogt, quoted by the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche. “It is a place to learn, collaborate, and actively create and do.”
If there is one word that best describes how public libraries are trying to build on the functions of the agora in Ancient Greece and the coffee houses of 17th-century Western Europe, that’s probably “Makerspaces.” Having first appeared in the Fayetteville Free Library in New York around five years ago, the Makerspaces represent specially designated areas in libraries equipped with 3-D printers, scanners, and other top-notch gadgets with which people can create and produce objects of art or objects for everyday use. The Makerspaces represent a modern-day lab of sorts for non-scientists, especially kids and teenagers, who can set their imagination free, nourish their curiosity, and relax among peers.
This spring, the regional library in the city of Varna, in cooperation with a local robotics school, organized a 3-D printing and modeling course. The library, which in March became the first public library in Bulgaria to introduce self-checkout, offered several three-hour editions of the course in the span of a few months. During the course, participants, who had to be at least 12 and bring their own laptops, learned to model 3-D objects such as a simple cube, a favorite character, or a practical tool for daily use.
For its part, the regional library in the town of Stara Zagora has launched a service unique for Bulgaria: bibliotherapy. Eleven certified consultants, who have completed training organized by the library and funded by the Global Libraries Foundation, consult library users and assist them in finding books that address some of their troubles. “With this service, readers receive special attention, enough time to share the problem that bothers them, conversation confidentiality, and a specially selected book,” explains Nadezhda Grueva, director of the Stara Zagora Regional Library.
The construction of state-of-the-art libraries offering access to knowledge, working spaces, meeting areas, and various forms of entertainment across Germany, Finland, and Bulgaria suggests that some politicians appreciate the value of libraries. Since October 2011, the German city of Stuttgart boasts a picturesque library, costing €79 million, which has become a tourist attraction of its own. Finland, for its part, has decided to mark its independence centenary with the opening of the Helsinki Central Library, a €96-million “digitally intelligent” and “eco-efficient” public library projected to receive 10,000 visitors a day after it launches in December 2017. Even Bulgaria, a post-communist country notorious for corruption, an unreformed judiciary, and poorly funded educational and cultural policies, has made headlines with a project for a new four-story building for the Varna Regional Library with a total area of 17,500 square meters, an underground parking lot for 330 cars, and a green roof. If the plans translate into reality, four years and approximately €18 million from now Varna will become home to the first public library erected in the country since the fall of communist rule in 1989.
These and other similar examples indicate that libraries will likely persist. Since their first documented appearance some 2,700 years ago, libraries have had periods of prosperity and periods of decline. Eventually, however, not only has the library survived as an institution but it has had an immeasurable and positive impact on human progress.
“We have an obligation to support libraries,” Neil Gaiman said during his Reading Agency speech in October 2013. “To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.”
Image Credit: Pixabay.