Culture shield

Libraries should be full of two things – (a) books and (b) silence.

They gave up on the hush years ago: ringing mobiles, leaky headphones, idle chat and screaming children aren’t just tolerated but encouraged. Noisiest of all are the librarians themselves, gabbling away at a volume that would shame a fishwife.

An even bigger betrayal is the trend away from books, which, one might have thought, are the whole point of a library. In libraries in this country and elsewhere, bookshelves have retreated before the advance of various electronic technologies – which have a tendency to age much faster than the good old-fashioned hardback.

In library systems around the world, physical books are disappearing in their millions to be replaced by e-books. Writing for the American Conservative, Gracy Olmstead questions the wisdom of this development:

“…[there is] an unspoken—and flawed—assumption that undergirds many of these library transformations, and leads to a lot of misconceptions in the print vs. online debate over books. Namely… that technology always equals evolution, that embracing new technological fads is an essential part of progress.

“But is this true? The new isn’t necessarily more durable or preferable—indeed, the new is often flimsy, unpredictable, and prone to unintended consequences. It has not yet withstood the test of time.”

Electronic formats have many advantages, but once they’re out of date they’re a liability. Anything entrusted to them can become inaccessible – just think about the stuff that you (or your parents) may have stored away on floppy disks.

We also overlook the advantages of printed text:

“In regards to book technology, specifically, a recent study has shown that e-reader users absorb less than those who read on paper. One professor reports that over 92 percent of students she surveyed ‘said they concentrate best when reading a hard copy.’”

Libraries think that they need the latest tech to attract the next generation of users. But, again, this is to over-simplify:

“As the [Washington Post] points out, ‘One survey … found that just 5 percent of millennials read only e-books. Twenty-one percent of the millennials said they read more hard copy than e-books, and 34 percent reported that they only read print.’ Even the youngsters still like print. They like e-readers, too, but their enjoyment of one does not exclude their use of the other. They’re ‘hybrid readers,’ enjoying both mediums in different venues, at different times, according to need and the occasion.”

Young people, being digital natives, are used to accessing electronic information. Actual books, though, can be a different matter – along with the opportunity to read them in peace. The last time I visited Croydon’s central library (which still maintains a degree of calm, thank goodness), the floors were full of young people quietly studying at every table, books spread out around them. For many of these users, the library will have been the only public, or private space, providing for this need.

The non-traditional library does have a place (especially when integrated with access to other public services) but only when fully thought through. In this respect, libraries are like churches: if you want to go happy-clappy, then either do it properly with all the bells and whistles – or keep things traditional.

What you don’t want is a poorly executed half-way house, devoid of both attraction and integrity.

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