Has The Internet Made The Library Redundant?

The advent of the digital age has seen massive changes in how we seek and consume information. With the vast majority of humanity’s compiled knowledge over the centuries accessible from nearly anywhere, printed media has seen a sharp decline in consumption. Among the institutions most affected by this are public and institutional libraries.

While some may feel that the World Wide Web has made libraries redundant- with many reports of declining membership and physical loans, a 2016 report by the Institute of Museum and Library Services in the United States found that there were nearly 1.4 billion recorded public library visits in the previous year, a number greater than that of movie admissions in the same year.

Does this mean that a decline has not occurred? No, but while libraries are not as popular as they once were, they are very far from being made redundant by the internet. They’ve avoided this fate through a combination of revamped functions, and continued support from the general public .

Here are a few ways that libraries have stayed relevant:

1. Evolving With Changing Times

In the past, searching for a book in a library was an integral part of the experience. One would have to speak to the librarian and put work into finding the right book amongst the hundreds and thousands available. Today, however, most libraries now digitize their stock. This means that people can quickly and efficiently search for the resources they seek, cutting down on the search time.

A 2015 survey conducted by the Loughborough University Library found that while 69% of all respondents admitted to visiting the library on a weekly basis, 81% of the undergraduate students interviewed admitted to accessing its online archives regularly. This was an increase of 15% from the results of the 2012 survey, conducted prior to its 2013 refurbishment.

This also helps libraries provide electronic loaning services to those who are unable to travel back and forth, to borrow and return material. They may also offer digital learning implements such as documentaries and instructional videos or recreational content such as films or music through compact disks or other forms of storage with viewing and listening areas. Some college and school libraries have now been redubbed as ‘learning resource centres’ to better reflect the variety of amenities they now provide in addition to housing books and journals.

2. A Safe Environment Designed To Foster Learning:

Most public and institutional libraries have always provided dedicated self as well as group study areas which are designed to provide safe, quiet, private and comfortable environments for students and the general public to indulge in learning. Whilst the internet can encourage camaraderie over common interests and tastes, and allows for learning from home, due to a lack of any sort of regulation, it can also be counterproductive and may even be harmful at worst. In this regard, the mandatory code of conduct imposed in libraries helps to foster discipline and focus in learning, whilst allowing for conversations to occur without censorship.

There is also something to be said about the social connotations with which we associate libraries. As a centre of ancient knowledge, to visit a library means to know that one is going there to study, or do research. It’s very name comes with a lot of history that alters the perception of those choosing to visit.

On the other hand, whilst the internet is an immense learning tool, it hasn’t been portrayed to children as solely a place for study, and thus comes with the connotation of distractions and digressions from the work at hand. In the aforementioned survey at the Loughborough University Library, 68% of respondents felt that the library was their preferred location for self study on campus, 11% higher than the number from the 2012 survey. This clearly implies that the library still retains its primacy as a place of scholarship.

3. Access To Updated Primary Sources Of Information :

A lot of the information available on the internet is through secondary sources such as articles, blogs, social media posts etc. that compile data and interpret them in a way that suits their own purposes. Despite being informative, the conclusions drawn may not always reflect the reality of the situations discussed. Moreover, the sheer volume of available content on the internet can be overwhelming at times and it can be hard to narrow the field down to the information you may require for your needs.

Librarians are trained to aid in these sorts of situations, with modern library indexes that are carefully categorized and classified to point you in the right direction without having to sift through large volumes of irrelevant information. Many libraries also house original prints, copies or digital versions of works of local literature, manuscripts, historical records, public documents, research journals and other media in their unaltered forms. This provides the general public and young academics with untainted versions of original data that can act as more objective sources of information.

This curation of information is an important function of libraries and many feel that it helps in developing strong research and learning habits. As seen in 2016 survey conducted by Ithaka S+R across various colleges in the United States, 63% of respondents felt that it was important for researchers to begin most forms of academic research in Libraries., with 80% of these respondents citing that libraries provided an important ‘gateway function’ to those looking to become strong researchers.

4. Points Of Convergence/Exchange Of Ideas

Modern libraries also serve as venues for seminars, conferences, book releases and reading or special interest clubs, making them vital to the community ethos. They can serve as sites for interaction with other learning centres across the country or all over the world through virtual conferences, online learning programs and collaboration in creative or research projects. With the number of people visiting them, they help to foster a sense of physical community, which can be highly beneficial for children still building their social acumen. This is supported by a study conducted by the American Library Association in 2017 -one in a growing body of evidence- which suggests that students who follow course integrated library and online content in their institutions perform better academically and possess a higher degree of information literacy, than those who simply use online sources.

5. Providing Access To Technology

Interestingly, one of the most important functions of public and college/ school libraries today providing access to computers and the web to students or individuals that may not possess these luxuries in their homes or communities. Many students and individuals living in strained financial situations or remote areas with little access to personal computers or the internet may view their nearest public, college or school library as their main point of access to these forms of technology. With over 300, 000 of the world’s libraries now having internet access, it’s clear that libraries recognize this and have acted upon it.

Conclusion

Libraries have been safe havens for our recorded knowledge for millenia and given how embedded the notion of the library is in our society and popular culture, they are unlikely to be made redundant by the internet.

However, as with all things facing the oncoming digital age, libraries will need to redefine themselves, and bring forth innovations in the roles and services they provide to the society of tomorrow. Though a challenge, many have already responded to the same, and are ensuring that they continue to play an integral part in the activities of the communities they reside in and act as points of convergence for the exchange of information and ideas.

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Mangesh Sawant

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