It is Libraries Week in the UK – a “celebration of […] the role of libraries in the digital world” (CILIP’s words). CILIP is organising and coordinating a series of events to mark the occasion.
Libraries up and down the country are organising events and activities around the celebrations, and the hashtag #librariesweek is trending on Twitter this week. The role of public libraries in a digital world is one that seems to need a lot of PR. More and more libraries are being forced to close down or reduce their services: services which go much beyond the mere lending of books.
Libraries are hubs of information, learning and social interaction on multiple levels. They certainly still provide information and entertainment via books, but they also allow access to multimedia content and games; provide events and courses; and offer opportunities for different communities to get together. More and more libraries are being turned into “community hubs” by their local authorities.
The digital equation
In 1998, the UK Government introduced the People’s Network, which recognised the need for everyone to have access to computers (and ultimately the internet). £100 million of lottery funding was invested to create an IT-based public library network, an objective fulfilled in 2002. The project equipped all public libraries with hardware and software which they could make accessible to their users. Over the past 20 years, countless users have relied on these services in a world that has become more and more digital. This has meant that the more vulnerable members of our society – the elderly, unemployed and those who cannot afford to pay for IT equipment themselves – have been able to participate in the digital world, not only by using the libraries’ equipment, but also by being given support and help on how to make most of the opportunities that present themselves online. Many libraries report that although the borrowing of books is going down, footfall is increasing; they say they can never have too many IT workstations. This is demonstrated also by the increase in use of online resources such as E-Books, subscription websites and downloadable audiobooks. Public libraries therefore occupy a big role in a digital world!
Budget cuts and lack of resources have put this system under a lot of strain recent years: the money for the People’s Network has dried up at a time when the equipment held by the libraries is in desperate need of being replaced. More modern computers are needed, as well as faster software and the resources to train staff to keep abreast of new developments. Some library authorities (e.g., Cambridgeshire) have decided the only option is to charge the users of IT equipment. This leaves those unable to pay in an impossible position: in a world where Universal Credit can only be applied for online, those who need it most are being denied the means to apply for it. In 2017 and 2018 Lorensberg’s, the online resource booking company, commissioned a series of case studies from Gold Leaf on this precise topic. 20 years after the launch of the People’s Network, we examined the current IT situation in public libraries and the challenges of digital resource provision they face. These case studies are available as freely downloadable E-Books: “Short Stories from the People’s Network” (2017) and “More Short Stories from the People’s Network” (2018).
Libraries have come a long way and have achieved so much – especially in providing digital inclusion, and we should not stop celebrating this at the end of this week!