I had an epiphany about the public libraries project this morning. In a school library as it happens. It suddenly dawned on me that it’s not about the books.
What I mean by this is that I have been too focused on books and the question of how digital books will influence physical libraries in the future. In short, will physical books disappear and take physical libraries along with them? But libraries are not just collections of books. They are collections of people.
It is the physical interaction of people, information and ideas – in all forms – that create a library and the physical space is hugely important. Libraries are community hubs. They are places where people go to borrow things and find answers, but they are also public spaces where people go to do things. Libraries are not just defined by what’s inside them but who’s inside them and what’s going on or available there.
It’s a bit like newspapers. The newspaper industry has got hung up with the issue of the internet when the real issue is content. Newspapers have become obsessed with online competition. This is a battle they have already lost and they should therefore focus more on the type of information that suits paper rather than pixels.
This has direct relevance to libraries. Digital books are here whether you like it or not and virtual libraries won’t be far behind. But neither of these developments will kill physical books or physical libraries because the two experiences are quite different.
When people read something on a screen they are usually in a hurry. They are looking for something quite specific and speed and convenience are critical. With physical newspapers, magazines and books people generally have a totally different mindset.
Mobile or screen-based media suits news, fast facts and snack-sized bursts of distraction. Fibre-media suits longer analysis and commentary. One is about speed whereas the other is more about relaxation and reflection.
What I suspect this will mean is that information splits into two. News and ‘vocational information’ will live largely online, whereas ‘leisure reading’ will continue to exist on paper. There will clearly be a crossover as one bleeds into the other, but generally I think this is what will happen.
So what are the implications of this for public libraries?
First, the demand for fast information will increase. “I need to know this now!” This will mostly be delivered online. Libraries can compete with this — and so they should, up to a point, because not everyone has access to a laptop or an iPhone. However, to focus too much on this would, in my opinion, be a big mistake.
Libraries are slow thinking spaces and they should stay that way. The majority of library users are not in a rush. They do not have a “search and destroy” mindset (William Powers). They have a “settle down mindset.”
In the future, the majority of library users will enter a library to slow down and escape from the fast-paced digital world outside. Libraries should therefore stay focused on slow reading and other reflective leisure-based activities ranging from music and film to art and history. This might sound boring but it needn’t be. Depending on the building and the people inside it public libraries can be vibrant places featuring cafes, shops, gyms, crÃ¨ches, theatres, galleries and various cultural activities and events.
But the most important thing of all has nothing to do with media or ‘content’. The most important thing a library does is to connect people. This could be two individuals or an entire community. It doesn’t matter. People, like ideas, are inherently social and both need physical spaces to come into contact with each other.