Public libraries are in financial dire straits all over the U.S. The dismal economy means public funds on the national, state, and local level are tight. A lot of library services and even libraries themselves are on the chopping block. The same is true around the world, really. There is an article in The Guardian this morning entitled “We still need libraries in the digital age” by Ian Clark from Canterbury Christ Church University library in Kent, England. Public libraries in the UK are funded largely through national funds granted by Parliament. That funding is widely under attack by those who say libraries are an unnecessary luxury in the age of Google.
Clark makes some good points about providing information access to the under-served and disadvantaged. He also points out the role of libraries in improving the information literacy of a community. Finally, he notes that while physical library visits have declined, visits to online resources are up over 49%.
The notion of library use is interesting to me. We have not had very good metrics to describe how much libraries get used. Even with the development of initiatives like Project Counter, the situation is even worse for use of electronic library collections. It’s hard to say what gets used and how much it gets used. Nonetheless, I find the idea that libraries are no longer important to be unsupported by the data. Yes, there is a decline in some kinds of use (physically walking in the door), but there is still a lot of it.
My library, for example, has had about a 20% decline in checking out physical books over the past 5 years, but still, there were over 218,000 circulations during the 2008-9 academic year. 218,000 physical things that people in our user community wanted. Even with a decline, I don’t think those numbers are insignificant. We don’t have good longitudinal data about electronic use, and the way things are counted (even with Project Counter standards) changes over time. Yet, we had over 1.5 million user logins to our online resources in 2008-9. Those users accessed over 8 million unique digital items. They made around 280,000 queries of our databases. The idea that libraries are unimportant is ridiculous. The digital age only means that the library is now largely online, but its importance is, if anything, greater.
The comments on Clark’s article are rather amusing: folks who say (paraphrase), “we don’t need libraries when we have stuff like JSTOR,” not realizing that it is only through a library subscription that they have access to that kind of licensed material. Information may want to be free, but it isn’t yet. Somebody has to pay for it and, thus, somebody has to decide what gets paid for. Libraries, whether we are talking about physical or online, are mechanisms for collectively sharing the cost of information. In the public library environmental especially, libraries are a way of ensuring that those without the financial means can still have access to useful information. If we become a society where access to information is based solely on the ability to pay, we will have become greatly diminished as a culture.