Government Technology

What Good Are Libraries?

Louis Zacharilla

March 28, 2013 By

If libraries are only about paper books, they're doomed. E-books beat the paper variety in almost every way. An entire library of some 3,000 electronic books can be packed into a device the size of one slim volume. Don't know the meaning of a word? Touch it and get a complete dictionary definition. Have trouble reading small print? Make it appear in a larger font, or listen to the audio version. Looking for a new book? Check out suggestions based on previous favorites, sample reader reviews or search for a favorite author. Today, e-books can even be lent or borrowed.

If libraries are only about research, they're also doomed. Now, some 5 exabytes of data are produced every two days, according to Google's Eric Schmidt. That's equivalent to the amount of data produced in the entire history of human beings up until 2003. Only a tiny portion of that data is available in public libraries, but with powerful search engines, the Internet will deliver the answers to nearly any research question, as well as enable copying or downloading such items as handwritten diaries of Civil War soldiers, passenger lists of immigrants who landed at Ellis Island, auto repair manuals, historical photos or holiday videos made by family members. Free cut, paste and print at home beats feeding quarters into the library copy machine.

But libraries are not just about books and research, said Louis Zacharilla. "Around the world, libraries drive economic development, support entrepreneurs in Vietnam, provide vital health information in Nepal and Kenya, and help citizens to be engaged, informed and involved in Honduras and Romania. The 21st-century library is no longer just about books or solely a place for kids."

Zacharilla, Intelligent Community Forum co-founder and Digital Communities contributor, just returned from an international conference on the future of libraries in Mexico City.

He said a 2012 survey of more than 7,000 libraries in the U.S. revealed that key library services now include computer training, electronic job search skills, how to access online databases and how to deal with e-government. In addition, in more than 60 percent of communities, libraries are the only source of free public access to computers, according to the survey.

"I've spoken to Tom Jenkins, the executive chairman and chief strategy officer of OpenText, a software company that does digital archiving for 42,000 companies," said Zacharilla, "and he made the point that the reason Western civilization has been so successful, is not necessarily that it had the biggest armies, but that it was able to catalog knowledge, organize it and push it out into the communities in a way that had never happened before. ... Jenkins maintains that we're not cataloging it properly now." The result, said Zacharilla, is that librarians are becoming Sherpas -- guides to help researchers navigate growing mountains of uncategorized information.

Libraries are also beginning to evolve into facilitation points, said Zacharilla, where entrepreneurs learn how to gather information so they can start businesses. "Some libraries are not so quiet anymore," he said. "They have collaboration rooms and places where community activists and leaders and entrepreneurs and startups can go in and speak with each other. So they're starting to round up and facilitate community resources for economic growth, which is somewhat of a new role for them."

But what about search engines? "The searches we do are in many cases guided by corporate interests," Zacharilla said. "You're paying for rankings, therefore searches lead you to places where vested interests want you to go to get information. Libraries curate inquiries based on what you need, not on what somebody else thinks they can provide. That's a significant difference and one that relates back to the community."

Zacharilla said new roles change how libraries look, and that in Quebec and Taiwan, residents enter a digital library "commons" area while the book stacks are in the basement. And no more stereotypes of the quiet librarian in glasses -- they are now professionals wielding the tools of information management, engaged in the community, local government and small business development, connected to schools, and advocating for faster broadband and digital inclusion.

Educating the population continues to be a function of libraries, said Zacharilla. "My father and my grandfather came here largely uneducated, but read stacks of books they got for free at their local library. They became very educated citizens. We're going to have to create a class of people like that as well, especially as we continue to receive immigrants. Advocate for community tribalism -- be a part of pushing out and reminding people what the culture is that they are a part of."

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Jerry Schulz    |    Commented April 2, 2013

Another new role for libraries is to provide technology access for those who otherwise lack it. The public access PCs in my big city neighborhood library are always all in use. Plus those with their own devices but no Internet access come in for the use of free Wi-Fi. And at a more basic level, it's important just to have a quiet place where you can go in, spread out your stuff, and do your schoolwork, etc. So these roles for libraries will be around for a while.

Bob Barboza    |    Commented April 2, 2013

Super School University has designed three new afterschool programs for public libraries: Backpack Journalism Backpack Science Backpack Robotics We are planning to test the waters in Long Beach and Los Angeles. Although we are still very much in the planning stages the first experiments have started in Long Beach, California.

Jim Duncan    |    Commented April 2, 2013

How many times must we read these thinly-researched, if-it's-true-for-me-then-it-must-be-true-for-the-world kinds of opinion pieces masquerading as journalism? Combine that with your 'sourced' material, and I'm left shaking my head at really how ignorant you are about the revolution that already has been underway in libraries for the better part of two decades, across the entire library industry: from online services to redesigned physical spaces and beyond. Wayne, your two quoted sources who are 'so knowledgeable' about library trends are neither working in nor for libraries. I'm going to make it easy on you. Go read the Jan 22 2013 RESEARCH report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, "Libraries Services in the Digital Age." Then, when you're ready to have a truly educated and in-depth discussion about the future of libraries, please seek out and visit with the director of your local public library.

James Spoerl    |    Commented April 2, 2013

Madison, WI has been possessed with the idea of a new, grandiose, central library. I had wondered about the future and relevancy of a library in the 21st Century. With the new advances in technology, I wondered the purpose of even a new building. Had thought that a few dozen desks with computers would cover all the needs of the city. Will read Commentor Jim Duncan's suggestions. MY ONLY COMMENT IS advice that I had gotten from someone. Not everyone has computers or the ability to use them...

Zach Tumin    |    Commented June 25, 2013

Concur with Jim Duncan,above. There is one unique and distinguishing asset of libraries - and that is physical books. The rest - digital books and e-platforms for every imaginable purpose -is perfectly well-served by pushing digital platforms out to KMarts and other private firms where people already are, as Aurora,CO is doing. But physical books for researchers is the unique and distinguishing virtue of libraries. Any library that surrenders its books ought to dissolve, as it just bankrupted itself.

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