Sunday, February 14, 2010

Digital Libraryworld Part 1: Defining the Public Library

Public Libraries are distinct from research, school and institutional ones, they hold books but the content, commercial models, patronage and usage are often distinct. Public libraries exist in most nations and generally funded by public sources. They were created to widen the publics’ access to content in order to drive education and literacy and not restrict information and the written word to ones ability to pay. It is regarded by many as a basic right to literature.

The history of the public library can be seen in the scrolls that were made available to the patrons of the Roman baths and although many libraries such as Norwich, Grantham, the Bodleian, Manchester, Ipswich, Bristol etc were established in the 17th century, it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that the public library we know today really took off. During the period the number of libraries in England and Scotland rose to 540 and the age of mass literacy started to take shape. Library growth was further boosted by philanthropists such as Carnegies in the US and libraries became community hubs.

However libraries appear to have lost their direction in the late 20th century. The reasons are many and often complex; wide availability of titles on the High Street, reduced library spending, mass paperbacks, higher dispensable income, increased media competition etc. Number of lending has decreased and in the world of instant gratification, waiting for that copy of the book to be returned, is no longer acceptable to many. When did you last see any spending on promoting public libraries? Some would suggest the libraries have had an identity crisis and even the librarians were becoming Information Officers not Bookmen.

Today libraries now face the opportunities available in the digital world. The questions of whether they are ready, who will lead and where they will be in 5, 10 or 15 years, remain unanswered.

They were created to enable access to the public irrespective of wealth – a basic right. If governments now start to view access to the internet and broadband speed as basic rights in the 21st century, then access to the digital library may become the public right the physical library was established to deliver.

However, lending digital works on the same model as the physical book could be disruptive to many within the publishing chain and even undermine its very core as we know it today. Do we fight change, restrict it or even starve it of content at source? Some major publishers such as Bloomsbury have embraced the challenge, whilst others have declined to let ebooks onto the digital shelves.

What is the answer? What are the potential business models? Who is doing what today? How do we engage in the meaningful dialogue and avoid the issue becoming a political football or as the current Minister Margaret Hodge is advocating a ‘Hodge Potch’ of ideas without context.

We will be writing this week about today’s digital landscape and the opportunities and challenges to the digital Libraryworld.

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