Does Your Local Library Deserve to Survive?


by - July 26th, 2010


Come on a hypothetical journey with me. Imagine a future where ebooks are the dominant format of books. It’s a world many people don’t think will ever exist. Boomerang’s own Aimee Burton is one of them (I’ve challenged her to a blargument, but until she picks up the gauntlet I threw down this will just have to be hypothetical). But let’s just imagine dead tree books are now the poor cousin of ebooks. Kind of like CDs already are to MP3s. In this world, there are still rabid collectors out there who buy every antique Stephenie Meyer out there, but for the most part, most people do their book reading electronically. In this world is your local library something you want your tax money spent on?

Before the mouth-breather with the orthopaedic shoes starts throwing the kids’ books around in the quiet corner, just think about it. I love local libraries. I love how empty they are. I love how many books are there. I love the crazy old cat lady who works there two out of every four days. But in the world I’ve just mentioned, what role does a local library have that cannot be fulfilled by every person’s internet connection in their own home?

The answer, at least for now, seems to be free access. Try as they might (read: they are not trying) the publishing industry is yet to come up with a way to make the full range of ebooks that are out there commercially available to government subsidised libraries. John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan US, recently described libraries in the digital age as a “thorny problem”. As the excellent Eric Hellman paraphrases:

In the past, getting a book from libraries has had a tremendous amount of friction. You have to go to the library, maybe the book has been checked out and you have to come back another time. If it’s a popular book, maybe it gets lent ten times, there’s a lot of wear and tear, and the library will then put in a reorder. With ebooks, you sit on your couch in your living room and go to the library website, see if the library has it, maybe you check libraries in three other states. You get the book, read it, return it and get another, all without paying a thing.

It’s hard to see a sound business reason why a publisher would ever want a workable system for library ebooks. And yet, as it stands, it’s up to publishing companies to come up with a solution to this problem. Ultimately, however, when you look at the depth and breadth of knowledge available for free on the internet nowadays, it’s hard to make an argument that every person needs free access to books. Many libraries are already shifting their focus away from merely being repositories of dead trees. Knowledge is no longer contained solely within paper covers. But, of course, knowledge was only one reason I used to go to libraries. Without my local library, there are a number of dodgy fantasy writers I never would have read.

So my questions today are these: Does your local library deserve to be saved? If so, how? If not, will you mourn the passing of the local library? If so, why? Share your library stories in the comments below.


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Joel Naoum (113 Posts)

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28 Responses to “Does Your Local Library Deserve to Survive?”

  1. Aimee Burton Says:

    How sneaky of you, to post this when that ‘gauntlet’ you threw down I thought was rhetorical as well as hypothetical!

    My library definitely needs to be ‘saved’. I’m a New South Welshman by birth and by upbringing, but having lived for a couple of years in QLD and lived a few more years in my current territory, the ACT, I can say that I much prefer the ACT’s library system out of the lot of them. It’s superb.

    I absolutely loved, for example, researching and putting a hold on Philip Pullman’s fable about Jesus a few weeks ago, and having it shipped in to my local libes within a few days. Unlike other States/ Territories where it costs a bucketload to reserve an item at another branch, ACT residents can have their books trotted around for free. And you don’t have to pay for it if you ‘forget’ to pick it up in 7 days.

    P.S. I realise simply by answering this hypothetical Q my argument is weakened. May I just state for the record that libraries won’t ever need to be saved.

  2. Joel Blacklock Says:

    Aimee – maybe we just need to have a dance-off instead?

  3. Aimee Burton Says:

    How sneaky of you, to post this when that ‘gauntlet’ you threw down I thought was rhetorical as well as hypothetical!

    My library definitely needs to be ‘saved’. I’m a New South Welshman by birth and by upbringing, but having lived for a couple of years in QLD and lived a few more years in my current territory, the ACT, I can say that I much prefer the ACT’s library system out of the lot of them. It’s superb.

    I absolutely loved, for example, researching and putting a hold on Philip Pullman’s fable about Jesus a few weeks ago, and having it shipped in to my local libes within a few days. Unlike other States/ Territories where it costs a bucketload to reserve an item at another branch, ACT residents can have their books trotted around for free. And you don’t have to pay for it if you ‘forget’ to pick it up in 7 days.

    P.S. I realise simply by answering this hypothetical Q my argument is weakened. May I just state for the record that libraries won’t ever need to be saved.

  4. Joel Blacklock Says:

    Aimee – maybe we just need to have a dance-off instead?

  5. Aimee Burton Says:

    I meant to also say – I quite like my FootSmart inserts.

  6. Aimee Burton Says:

    I meant to also say – I quite like my FootSmart inserts.

  7. Anne Says:

    My local library growing up was the Cottesloe/Peppermint Grove library mentioned in the Book Show a few weeks ago, which is being converted into a community-centre-type venue, with adjoining cafe and health centre. My grandmother is utterly devoted to the current library, refuses to buy books and struggles to hide her disapproval when she is given non-library books by friends and family. She is the most voracious reader I’ve ever encountered, constantly took me to the library and is responsible for my love of books.

    I’ll be interested to see how she takes to the “library of the future”. I had imagined that as more local library devotees like my grandmother shuffle off their mortal coil, so would libraries eventually follow, but clearly not so. Libraries of the future might look completely different (cafe-cum-library with no shelves, only data cables for accessing the “books”?), but they have incredible value regardless, as long as they continue to actively encourage new generations to freely access the benefits of reading.

    I’m with you on the dodgy fantasy books – although for me it was medieval historal romance/bodice rippers at age 11. Shaping young minds indeed.

  8. Joel Blacklock Says:

    It was a very interesting story on the Book Show. Despite my technological tub-thumping, I think it’s far more likely that libraries in some form will survive, but will transform (as they’re already doing) to accommodate the changing use of the space. I particularly liked the idea in that story about local libraries having a strong ‘brand’ – in that they are trusted, safe places that most people have a high opinion of, so we shouldn’t dispense of them easily. I just wonder if, just like the Cottlesloe-Peppermint Grove-Mosman Park Library changing its name to ‘The Grove: Leading Learning Living’, they will drop the name ‘library’ altogether. In that sense, libraries may well not survive the next forty years.

  9. Anne Says:

    My local library growing up was the Cottesloe/Peppermint Grove library mentioned in the Book Show a few weeks ago, which is being converted into a community-centre-type venue, with adjoining cafe and health centre. My grandmother is utterly devoted to the current library, refuses to buy books and struggles to hide her disapproval when she is given non-library books by friends and family. She is the most voracious reader I’ve ever encountered, constantly took me to the library and is responsible for my love of books.

    I’ll be interested to see how she takes to the “library of the future”. I had imagined that as more local library devotees like my grandmother shuffle off their mortal coil, so would libraries eventually follow, but clearly not so. Libraries of the future might look completely different (cafe-cum-library with no shelves, only data cables for accessing the “books”?), but they have incredible value regardless, as long as they continue to actively encourage new generations to freely access the benefits of reading.

    I’m with you on the dodgy fantasy books – although for me it was medieval historal romance/bodice rippers at age 11. Shaping young minds indeed.

  10. Joel Blacklock Says:

    It was a very interesting story on the Book Show. Despite my technological tub-thumping, I think it’s far more likely that libraries in some form will survive, but will transform (as they’re already doing) to accommodate the changing use of the space. I particularly liked the idea in that story about local libraries having a strong ‘brand’ – in that they are trusted, safe places that most people have a high opinion of, so we shouldn’t dispense of them easily. I just wonder if, just like the Cottlesloe-Peppermint Grove-Mosman Park Library changing its name to ‘The Grove: Leading Learning Living’, they will drop the name ‘library’ altogether. In that sense, libraries may well not survive the next forty years.

  11. Anne Says:

    The Grove is the name of the shopping centre that currently exists in the same complex, so I suppose the community will still be referring to the “Leading Learning Living” section within the centre as “the library” for a few years yet. Or perhaps “Triple L”, or “The L”, or “that place that used to be called the library”. Much like Prince. Or sorry, Symbol. Or is it Prince again now?

  12. Anne Says:

    The Grove is the name of the shopping centre that currently exists in the same complex, so I suppose the community will still be referring to the “Leading Learning Living” section within the centre as “the library” for a few years yet. Or perhaps “Triple L”, or “The L”, or “that place that used to be called the library”. Much like Prince. Or sorry, Symbol. Or is it Prince again now?

  13. Joel Blacklock Says:

    The Place Formerly Known As. I like it. At any rate, that Book Show piece made me realise that libraries really can be and often are more than just places you get free access to content. They’re also public spaces where the community interacts. My guess is that some libraries are not as idyllic as that one though. I went back to my local library on the south coast of NSW as an adult and was stunned at how little it had changed. And it was completely empty. It was like a cemetery for dead trees. Or perhaps like a church. And just like the church, it was having a lot of problems getting people to go along.

  14. Joel Blacklock Says:

    The Place Formerly Known As. I like it. At any rate, that Book Show piece made me realise that libraries really can be and often are more than just places you get free access to content. They’re also public spaces where the community interacts. My guess is that some libraries are not as idyllic as that one though. I went back to my local library on the south coast of NSW as an adult and was stunned at how little it had changed. And it was completely empty. It was like a cemetery for dead trees. Or perhaps like a church. And just like the church, it was having a lot of problems getting people to go along.

  15. Catherine Says:

    “Ultimately, however, when you look at the depth and breadth of knowledge available for free on the internet nowadays, it’s hard to make an argument that every person needs free access to books.”

    This assumes, of course, that people have access to the internet. While it’s almost a given these days, you can’t forget that internet bills are costly, and so are personal computers and so forth. Even if the local library doesn’t have physical books in the future, they would still serve an important function as a place to access the internet for free.

    One could also argue about the accuracy of the free content on the internet, but that’s a much larger debate …

  16. Joel Blacklock Says:

    Indeed! Free access to the resource can’t be underestimated. But if it’s only free access to the internet that’s being provided by these libraries of the future – are they even libraries any more? What defines the library? The books or the knowledge?

  17. Catherine Says:

    “Ultimately, however, when you look at the depth and breadth of knowledge available for free on the internet nowadays, it’s hard to make an argument that every person needs free access to books.”

    This assumes, of course, that people have access to the internet. While it’s almost a given these days, you can’t forget that internet bills are costly, and so are personal computers and so forth. Even if the local library doesn’t have physical books in the future, they would still serve an important function as a place to access the internet for free.

    One could also argue about the accuracy of the free content on the internet, but that’s a much larger debate …

  18. Joel Blacklock Says:

    Indeed! Free access to the resource can’t be underestimated. But if it’s only free access to the internet that’s being provided by these libraries of the future – are they even libraries any more? What defines the library? The books or the knowledge?

  19. Bronwyn Says:

    Of course, ‘libraries’ will change but they will remain vital centres for free access to material of all sorts. Lots of people don’t have access to the internet at home, they don’t know where to go to get information about lots of things, they don’t want to use an expensive device to read a book, they don’t go to really well resourced schools (despite what the government says), they want their children to share stories, songs and activities with other children, they need somewhere warm to sit and read the daily paper and the latest magazines…. I could go on!

  20. Bronwyn Says:

    Of course, ‘libraries’ will change but they will remain vital centres for free access to material of all sorts. Lots of people don’t have access to the internet at home, they don’t know where to go to get information about lots of things, they don’t want to use an expensive device to read a book, they don’t go to really well resourced schools (despite what the government says), they want their children to share stories, songs and activities with other children, they need somewhere warm to sit and read the daily paper and the latest magazines…. I could go on!

  21. Dave Roberts Says:

    Sorry I’m late, but reading this it strikes me that the most important thing about the library has been the librarian. Free internet access is available at the local cafe fairly often, but the waitress is probably not ready to help you with how to log on, how to access RSS feeds, how to discern what is good valuable information and what’s fluff. Publishers are in deep ‘nure if they don’t work out how to use the net to deliver content, because I guess they’ll always be able to sell SOME books, but they must figure out how to get them to the masses in a cutlturally and commercially sensible way, and maybe they should be talking to librarians about that…

  22. Joel Blacklock Says:

    That may well be true. On the other hand, I don’t think the librarian (at least not the traditional idea of the librarian) is the person anyone relies on to curate the information available on the internet. It may well be that your local librarian is better trained to deal with RSS feeds and how to find useful, interesting information on the net nowadays, but I don’t think that the majority of the next generation are going to be relying on a librarian for that role – in fact, I’d be surprised if most twelve year old kids weren’t better equipped, technologically, for finding that information than a middle-aged librarian… Just sayin’.

  23. Dave Roberts Says:

    Sorry I’m late, but reading this it strikes me that the most important thing about the library has been the librarian. Free internet access is available at the local cafe fairly often, but the waitress is probably not ready to help you with how to log on, how to access RSS feeds, how to discern what is good valuable information and what’s fluff. Publishers are in deep ‘nure if they don’t work out how to use the net to deliver content, because I guess they’ll always be able to sell SOME books, but they must figure out how to get them to the masses in a cutlturally and commercially sensible way, and maybe they should be talking to librarians about that…

  24. Joel Blacklock Says:

    That may well be true. On the other hand, I don’t think the librarian (at least not the traditional idea of the librarian) is the person anyone relies on to curate the information available on the internet. It may well be that your local librarian is better trained to deal with RSS feeds and how to find useful, interesting information on the net nowadays, but I don’t think that the majority of the next generation are going to be relying on a librarian for that role – in fact, I’d be surprised if most twelve year old kids weren’t better equipped, technologically, for finding that information than a middle-aged librarian… Just sayin’.

  25. Elise Says:

    Having been a librarian I must admit my fondness for the local library has its nostalgic tones but I do believe they have a role beyond the provision of free internet access. Of my 13 book club members only 2 of us have a Kindle as yet with most of our selections read as printed books. I still can’t bring myself to take my Kindle to the beach or read a magazine on it. I still needed my library when starting French courses to get learning material in CD format, the joy of browsing the ‘returned’ shelves is still current, it’s hard to think of the appeal of reading Peek a boo as an ebook, it’s unlikely i would drool over a cook book on Kindle, where else would i go to get a range of books on my next travel destination and i despair when my high schoolchildren present me with a bibliography of internet cites only (even if those cites have been accessed through their library).
    So i do think the local library has a role to play in providing the whole variety of media which stores information because it collects them in the one place for all people of all income levels. As you say, publishers want to corner the ‘buy now and get it now’ approach best suited to wealthy consumers who don’t like community places and prefer bestseller or recent publications.

  26. Elise Says:

    Having been a librarian I must admit my fondness for the local library has its nostalgic tones but I do believe they have a role beyond the provision of free internet access. Of my 13 book club members only 2 of us have a Kindle as yet with most of our selections read as printed books. I still can’t bring myself to take my Kindle to the beach or read a magazine on it. I still needed my library when starting French courses to get learning material in CD format, the joy of browsing the ‘returned’ shelves is still current, it’s hard to think of the appeal of reading Peek a boo as an ebook, it’s unlikely i would drool over a cook book on Kindle, where else would i go to get a range of books on my next travel destination and i despair when my high schoolchildren present me with a bibliography of internet cites only (even if those cites have been accessed through their library).
    So i do think the local library has a role to play in providing the whole variety of media which stores information because it collects them in the one place for all people of all income levels. As you say, publishers want to corner the ‘buy now and get it now’ approach best suited to wealthy consumers who don’t like community places and prefer bestseller or recent publications.

  27. Christine Says:

    No my local library does not deserve to be saved. It books are soooo old the may have been new 20 years ago but as for up to date material who knows. I live in Newington that has a library – technically – but to get a book you have to pay a fee and I was quoted up to $25 for some specialised books. My friend who lives in Nowra can get any book he wants for a $1, from any library in NSW including the Mitchell – why am I charged so much – no one can really answer that. If I want to join the library committee I have to pay to be a member so much for my rates at work – my council is more interested in esoteric brick buildings not mind building

  28. Christine Says:

    No my local library does not deserve to be saved. It books are soooo old the may have been new 20 years ago but as for up to date material who knows. I live in Newington that has a library – technically – but to get a book you have to pay a fee and I was quoted up to $25 for some specialised books. My friend who lives in Nowra can get any book he wants for a $1, from any library in NSW including the Mitchell – why am I charged so much – no one can really answer that. If I want to join the library committee I have to pay to be a member so much for my rates at work – my council is more interested in esoteric brick buildings not mind building