There needs to be less lending of objects and more spreading of access to stay relevant in the digital age
When industrialist Andrew Carnegie was building his philanthropic empire and choosing the benefi ciaries of his generosity, there was an area of public life that was never in doubt. “A library outranks any other thing a community can do to benefi t its people. It’s an ever flowing spring in the desert,” goes the quote.
Sadly for their advocates, the days when public libraries enjoyed that sort of acclaim are behind us.
Across the UK, in the past 20 years there has been a signifi cant decline in the number of people using library services – although Scotland maintains the highest level of use in the UK – as public libraries find themselves attacked from two sides: on one hand, by cuts in public expenditure that threaten their survival, and on the other, by the rapid digitalisation of information and the means of its consumption, which threaten their relevance.
“The fact that we’re facing both these challenges at the same time puts public libraries at great risk,” according to Martyn Wade, chief executive of the National Library of Scotland (NLS). Speaking at an event hosted by the Carnegie UK Trust as part of the recent Festival of Politics at the Scottish Parliament, Wade outlined how libraries could harness the digital revolution to renew their relevance. “The scale of the opportunities and challenges of the digital age are enormous, so the scale of change required of public libraries is equally enormous.”
Despite always having worked in public libraries before taking charge of the NLS, Wade was unsentimental in calling on the sector to adapt to changing circumstances. “Public libraries have no right to exist; they have to earn that. But there is a strong and powerful role for them.”
The event was part of a nationwide Carnegie UK Trust campaign to support policies which will ensure libraries are fit for the future. In Scotland, a key component of that effort is to have public library provision integrated into Scotland’s Digital Future strategy, which is currently being updated. Exclusion from Scotland’s national digital plan is symptomatic of the decline of libraries, according to Melvyn Ingleson, chair of the Scottish Government’s Digital Participation Action Group, and of the debate at Holyrood in August.
“A great deal of emphasis is being placed on infrastructure, the kind of investment that libraries could only dream of; £250m additional investment going into broadband infrastructure procurement from September across Scotland,” Ingleson said.“Generally speaking, the role of libraries, but also in particular, the role of content in Scotland, has not really been fully considered within the Digital Future strategy.”
The nature of the content is changing, and libraries need to adapt to that change, the panel agreed. The traditional idea of a library as a building whose objects could be borrowed and taken away makes less sense when modern collections are no longer restrained by the building. Many of the things libraries now supply are rented rather than purchased from publishers, Wade suggested, and a shift providing access to other libraries’ collections as they digitise their material would better reflect that reality. Libraries should consider themselves increasingly about content rather than objects.
If anyone in the audience had questioned Wade’s reflections on the radically different future awaiting library content, they would have been converted by the end of the presentation by digital publisher Max Whitby. He demonstrated two recent educational titles from his company, Touch Press, both of which can be purchased as apps for the iPad.
In one, a collection of Shakespearian sonnets, readers can split the screen and pull up explanatory notes, images of the original text or video of celebrated actors like Patrick Stewart and David Tennant alongside their chosen poem. In the other, a book on the solar system, rather than exploring via a table of contents, users are greeted with a fully interactive model of the planets and their orbits, with information popping up at each touch of a finger, like in an augmented reality display.
While Whitby was at pains to say that inclusion of fully-researched text within every layer of the e-books ensured that they weren’t “just TV”, his products nonetheless illustrated the narrowing gap between the digital book and software. Indeed, his ‘books’ would simply have been called computer programs just a few years ago.
“It’s often suggested that digital books are in some way replacing printed books. That’s not the case at all in my view,” Whitby said. “I think we’re seeing the emergence of a new kind of book that will sit alongside traditional printed books.” Certainly, the two are very different.
The spread of the internet and the digitalisation of information is generally greeted as an unqualified good, and Wade acknowledges that it brings “more opportunities than challenges”. However, he sounds a note of caution to those who assume the internet is having a wholly democratising infl uence on access to information. Access is one issue – with recent Scottish Government figures suggesting that 29 per cent of Scots do not have personal access to the internet, it would be dangerous to suggest that people in every walk of life are able to take advantage of its benefi ts.
Content is another area where libraries need to level the digital playing fi eld for users. Wade cites the growing row over what he calls the “monopolistic” pricing strategies of digital academic journals, and the potential that publishers whose services are currently free to use, such as Google Books, might seek to monetise their content in the future.
“Without public libraries there’s a real danger that th ubiquity of the internet will be used by commercial organisations to deliver content without any particular regard to quality, and certainly without any regard to equality of access.” Libraries can come together to combat such commercial monopolies on content, acting as free-to-use portals to paid-for services, and thereby protecting their relevance, Wade says. “They should be as essential at the end of the 21st century as they were at the beginning of the 21st century.”
Libraries will fail in that aim, however, if they do not find a new structure for working together that pools digital resources and extends access as widely as possible, Wade concludes.
“We have at the present a fractured structure of services and sectors in Scotland, which will make it diffi cult for every library to respond as effectively as possible to this digital age. In this complex rather fragmented environment, a national strategic approach, a national library and information strategy, will provide the opportunity for [a] stronger, more consistent response to the opportunities and the challenges.”
His big idea is something just short of a national library service; a single network with a national infrastructure and comprehensive digitalisation programme that would fill the library-shaped hole in the Digital Future strategy. Whatever the outcome of the updated strategy, which goes before ministers this month, Wade concedes that creating such a network represents a further struggle for public libraries – one that has yet to begin.