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I ought to declare my interest by mentioning that I started my career as a trainee in a public library before going to library school, and then became a full-time library assistant at a further education college. Now I work part-time, combining my job with that of an author and freelance journalist (for the love of it, not the financial rewards, such as they are!) who does a large amount of research on the internet. So not only am I touch biased, but I feel I can look at libraries, their value and usefulness in the 21st century, from several angles.
Libraries, particularly public (which are what I will be looking at in this op), have a rather undeserved image problem. All too rarely is it appreciated that they have been continuously evolving since they were first established by act of Parliament in the 1850s, and will continue to do so.
Take the general public's point of view. Generations have grown up without recourse to computers and the internet and have a deep distrust of them. As regards reference and fact-finding, most of them will always get what they want to out of books, apart from questions which can only be answered for them from the net by librarians. Even in ten or twenty years when everybody will be online and being without it will be like not having TV or a telephone, they will still want to borrow and read books in hard copy for recreational use, from their local public or mobile library. Living in a large village in south Devon, I can speak for the high regard in which our mobile service is held, as it's the only chance most of the people around here ever have of borrowing books. With the current parlous state of local government finance, chances of getting a proper branch library are almost nil.
It goes without saying that reference books in their traditional form are on the way out. Encyclopaedia Britannica was one of the first publishers to realise this, and the sight of a complete bound set in a public library is becoming increasingly rare. The same goes for the full series of the telephone directory (or two series, if you include A-Z and the yellow pages). But taking a novel, thriller or popular biography in book format to read in bed/on the train or bus will be with us for a long time yet, and I've yet to find anybody, even the most dyed-in-the-wool computer nerd, to disagree.
Finally, a word about my research needs as an author, and I'm sure my experiences are by no means unique. Much of what I want and need can be accessed somewhere on the net, but not all. As a writer of historical biography, for the last few years I have been privileged to have access to an outstanding reserve collection in this field housed in the basement of one of the main public libraries in central London. Outside the British Library, to which access is extremely restricted, it is almost certainly one of the most comprehensive collections in this field - miles of shelving supporting several thousand volumes, published from the early 19th century to almost the present day. Some fiction out-of-copyright classics are available on the net (on the Gutenberg Archive, and various English literature sites, for instance). Yet the vast majority of the non-fiction material I need to use is not on the internet. Even if it was, it would take forever and a day, as well as a vast amount of mouse-clicking, to access a fraction of it.
This is the kind of service which in my opinion means the public library is here to stay. Despite being strapped for cash thanks to successive governments almost ever since the Public Libraries Act became law in 1964, long may it do so. Did TV kill off the cinema? Have video and DVD killed off TV? No, because they all serve different needs. In the same way, I see no reason why public libraries and the internet can't co-exist and complement each other.
If you're not a regular library user, do something about it! Membership in the area where you live or work is free, as is the borrowing of books (though not CDs, videos or DVDs. Just remember to return them on time! And remember - use your library services or lose them. This isn't a plug, as they're not a business, they're a resource funded by us as taxpayers. We'd all be the poorer without them.
The national would be an even sadder place still without our libraries. I miss the old style library where there was a little card pocket pasted to the inside of the books and the tickets were made of card, then the return date would be rubber-stamped onto a piece of paper glued to the inside cover. Oh, those were the days!
twinks5 22.11.2002 08:15
My mum went to uni as a mature student and came out with some degree related to library work-will have to ask her what as I forget everything these days....They are very under rated places and in this day of computors I think it is just too easy for us to switch on and search for info over the net....one thing I learnt when doing my A levels was that you cannot have enough reference books to hand so must say i feel sorry for those who believe the internet can come close in what it has to offer.....good op
tange 01.10.2001 12:01
I support everything you say...a great opinion...I work in a library and I can vouch for the fact that we have so much to offer!