Widespread closures of UK library services will cause irrevocable damage, argues George Lossius, CEO of Ingenta.
The library, arguably one of the last remaining bastions of community and academic life is severely under threat with a predicted 375 local library closures set to take hold across the UK as a result of local authority cuts. With protests attracting the support of several high profile campaigners, the government is currently bracing itself for a bumpy ride over this contentious issue.
But what is it about our beloved libraries that we would miss once they have closed their doors to the public? Is it the service they provide, supplying resources for educational and research or leisure and entertainment purposes? Or is it more the buildings themselves, which have become central hubs of community spirit, where collective knowledge, wisdom and friendships are shared?
The role of the modern library
Whilst nobody would contest the vital role libraries play within communities, large or small, the traditional notion that libraries are simply large buildings full of books has moved on considerably in recent years. Libraries are so much more than containers. They are places where a tremendous amount of expertise is used to organise, display, tailor and deliver content in order to make it accessible to the masses, be it print, digital, audio or visual.
The library’s role now extends far beyond the walls of the building it occupies. It is now a repository and access point, where information can be extracted across multiple formats from a vast array of different sources. Instead of spending hours browsing through aisles upon aisles of physical books, people can now get the content they need with a few clicks of a mouse at a workstation within the library or by accessing a library portal from the comfort of their home. Technology has enabled the whole search and acquisition process to become more hassle-free and less time-consuming for customers and what’s more, the migration of content to e-book format means that libraries can now produce substantial revenues without having to stock physical books.
Evolution yes, closure no
If the government proceeds with these cuts, thousands of talented and skilled librarians and library science practitioners, who have been so pivotal in the evolution of the library to date, would be left jobless. Whilst the loss of library buildings as iconic community focal points would be mourned far and wide, by far the most gut-wrenching consequence of the cuts would be the complete eradication of local libraries as services. This would not only be an irrevocable national tragedy, but it would also have a major impact on the already widely perceived ‘dumbing down’ of society.
The modern library does not need to be housed in a large building. The recent advances in technology and publishing mean that a great deal of library real estate across the country can be divested successfully without having to close these institutions down completely. The government can take advantage of these developments to save money by downsizing and keeping talented librarians in work as opposed to the widespread cuts which have been proposed.
Local authorities need to find a happy medium which allows library services to continue to play a vital role at the heart of the community, as opposed to taking an aggressive broad brush approach and enforcing widespread closures. If all the library of the future consists of is a dozen computer workstations and a help or service desk, rather like an internet café, at least the essential services that these institutions and their personnel provide will remain.