The dawn of the Internet spawned predictions of the demise of libraries, made irrelevant by technology that puts infinite amounts of information at almost everyone’s fingertips.
But as the world has changed, so have libraries and how we use them. Though they still lend books — and we hope they always do — they have vastly expanded their scope and services without diminishing the central purpose of sharing our resources for the benefit of all.
The Greater Victoria Public Library has offered more than books for years, and a few years ago began allowing its patrons to check out passes to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and the Royal B.C. Museum. Now it has added passes to Saanich recreation centres.
What’s next, puppies and power tools? Why not? B.C. libraries are already doing these things. The West Kootenay Regional Seed Library allows patrons to withdraw regionally acclimated seeds. At the end of the season, they save some of the seeds from their crops and return them to the library. The Bowen Island Med Shed allows users to check out such medical devices as crutches, walkers, wheelchairs and bathing aids.
The cliché of a library as merely a place of books is long dead. Proof of that can be found in the presentations offered at the national conference of the Canadian Library Association, which kicks off in Victoria today.
The next four days are packed with more than 70 seminars. They include topics that range from nuts-and-bolts stuff (“Emergency preparedness and disaster planning for libraries,” “Introduction to book repair”) to the trendy (“How libraries can become social media gurus to delight their customers,” “Building digital collections with the Internet archive”).
In case you think today’s library isn’t your grandmother’s library, speakers will address serving seniors, as well as how to increase connectedness with youthful patrons. Presenters will lead discussions on services for immigrants and First Nations. The conference looks to the future (“Open access goes mainstream”) without forgetting the past (“Finding dead people: A discussion forum for local history and genealogy practitioners”).
“The spectrum of human need is continually expanding,” says futurist Thomas Frey. “So as the spectrum of human need grows, the opportunities for libraries to meet these needs is also growing. However, ‘needs’ are a moving target, so the library of the future will need to be designed to accommodate the changing needs of its constituency.”
Instead of being swept aside by the tide of technology, libraries are catching the wave and riding it into the future. The GVPL and the Vancouver Island Regional Library offer computer and mobile device access to ebooks, audiobooks, music and movies through such apps as Hoopla. The library is no longer confined within four walls or limited to certain hours, in effect, making any home with a computer or tablet a branch of the library.
Technology has enabled the development of services such as the National Network of Equitable Library Service and the Centre for Equitable Library Access that ensure everyone, regardless of ability or location, can have access to what libraries have to offer.
There is not just one model for a library. It is now possible — even desirable — to have a library with no books or no building; in effect a virtual library.
A library is a depository of possibilities, and technology has allowed libraries to make those possibilities almost limitless. But libraries should never evolve to the point where a library is a machine automatically dispensing services. Where there are libraries, there should always be librarians to help guide us through the vast sea of knowledge.