I’ll bet that if you sat down with three people – someone over the age of sixty, someone 30 – 60, and someone under the age of 30 — and asked them about their experience with the library they would tell you stories that would hardly resemble one another. Let’s imagine what those stories might look like.
For those oldest of these participants, they might speak of the libary as a reference centre; a special place that a small, but strong population frequented as they grew up (largely due to lower literacy rates among peers and a small knowledge work-based population); a place to borrow books that you could not get anywhere else (because there weren’t many bookstores growing up); as a quiet, clean and almost stern place to visit, much like a monastery; and they might describe a book in almost ‘savoury’ language given that, when growing up, there was not a lot of other media forms out there and few distractions from the book once you had it to enable you to dive into it fully. Librarians might be recalled as people who keep order over the place and enforce the ‘quiet’ policy (the stereotypical woman with the long skirt, glasses and the hair in a bun comes to mind).
The person in the middle aged bracket might speak of their experience with the library as a place where they had storytime as a kid; found books to help them with school (because many in this age bracket are of a generation where homework and post-secondary education became popular); you can get books (and later VHS & DVD’s) for free, even though there are bookstores all over the place including big-box ones; it was one of the earliest places to access the Internet if not at home or work and sometimes a place where you could get help with searches on health, political or legal issues; and they might describe books and media as something that are commonplace and part of an everyday landscape that are consumed and returned without much thought because it exists in so much abundance. Librarians to this generation did all kinds of stuff from read you stories, help you with a term paper, and mostly help you find things from the vast array of sources in the library.
The last person, the under-30, would have a different experience. A library might have been one of the only rooms in their school for group-work, because the school was crowded and not set up for the kind of group work that is commonplace for that generation because it was likely built in the 1950’s, 60’s or 70’s; it provides a place to study for exams at university; it is one of many places with free Internet and computers (for when yours is in the shop getting fixed); and while it is full of books, periodicals and journals, those paper copies are only accessed as a last resort because they take so long to get and search through; A librarian is the person you go to when the computer won’t work or you need directions to the bathroom.
Is this familiar? To be sure, these are caricatures, but they speak to the shift in how libraries are viewed and their role in society. Seth Godin, who’s blog is one of the few ‘must reads’ on my list, recently wrote about the future of the library.
What should libraries do to become relevant in the digital age?
They can’t survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don’t want to own (or for reference books we can’t afford to own.) More librarians are telling me (unhappily) that the number one thing they deliver to their patrons is free DVD rentals. That’s not a long-term strategy, nor is it particularly an uplifting use of our tax dollars.
Here’s my proposal: train people to take intellectual initiative.
Seth’s proposal is one that cuts across all three of the characters that I described above. The marvel of tools like Twitter and other social media tools is that they help provide you answers to questions you never thought to ask. Libraries can support this by training people to use information resources and networks to take the initiative to ask questions and create answers more effectively in a manner that is effective for people to find and to understand. In short, the future of the library is also what it always has been about: literacy.
Literacy describes a constellation of learning skills, mental model development tools, and methods of expressing ideas to effectively engage with the social and informational landscape around us. This could be in its most basic forms of reading and writing, or learning about science, computers, or media. It can be on issues of health, information seeking or take forms like ‘meta-literacies’ such as eHealth literacy, which combines all of these forms together.
It is for that reason that the news yesterday that the Canadian Council on Literacy, an advocate and innovator on literacy issues in Canada and internationally, was told that its federal funding (it’s greatest source) would be canceled as of March 31st, 2010. It strikes me that in an era where information is plentiful (even overwhelming in its volume) and the demands (and necessity) for citizens to use information from a variety of sources to make ever-more complex decisions that this is a move backwards.
Perhaps if citizens take up this cause of literacy and support Seth Godin’s renewed mission for libraries we might not have to watch as more literacy organizations, including libraries, disappear because it seems to me that their opportunity to shape a knowledge-driven, learning culture has never been greater than it is now.