When I was young libraries afforded me access to the books that my family couldn’t otherwise afford. I had learned to read pre-school but my mother didn’t find out until I was asked by the librarian to read something out loud when applying for my own ticket. I have haunted libraries ever since, whilst having my own collection of books.
However, being able to afford my own computer and broadband I’ve never been a user of library computer facilities but see plenty of those who do, and whilst travelling frequently have to resort to an Internet cafe, so I can see the benefit of libraries providing widespread, accessible and relatively secure access to the Internet and computing, along with books, newspapers and magazines to read.
Things have moved on though, and despite being surrounded by books at home my own son is more used to sitting with a laptop, wireless broadband and a mobile phone. He appears to read few books but manages to mash his information successfully from the various sources on Internet, so whilst he’s not a frequent visitor to the library, I’m sure his less provided-for friends are!
So what do we do about libraries? Councils threaten to close them as a money-saving measure but that will obviously exclude not only book readers but those digitally excluded for want of hardware or broadband. My own council started merging its area offices with the county council libraries over the last few years, and we now don’t have any local offices in a vast rural area. Any library closure would affect the many citizens in rural areas who access district services through that route.
Whilst it’s easy to suggest that services should be delivered, and therefore used, digitally by default, this can’t apply to the many older people who have no desire to become digital, although many have and increasingly will do. It can’t also apply to those without access to computing and broadband, especially if public access through libraries is withdrawn.
So, how do we balance this? Some unitary councils have moved local service delivery to their libraries and whilst I’m unsure of the success or otherwise, the answer has to be having ICT facilities, with trained service facilitators or mediators encouraging the use, alongside traditional books and papers. This may be an easy win in a unitary authority, but with the juggling of budgets across two-tiers, a less easy one for districts and counties. One of the issues with e-government has always been where the cost was located, in this instance, some imagination will be needed.
I’m not sure it’ll happen in the UK but at least one US library is now processing passport applications! However, we can get this done at the jolly old Post Office, if it hasn’t been shut down, along with the library and pub! Libraries in many areas provide an existing trusted and traditional infrastructure for public services, we need to think seriously before shutting them.