Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Why Do We Need Libraries?

I love libraries. (This is my lovely new local library.) I have been using them more and more over the past few years, mainly for research but also so I can read a wider range of books (without having to buy them). This might seem penny-pinching. Yep, it is to start with. But if I do find an author's books that I really like, I will often go and buy one or two. However, there are often books that I give up on after 40-50 pages (sorry, Quentin Jardine) and know that I will never read further. Or buy any. The voice or the style or the kind of story it is just doesn't resonate with me. And public libraries allow me to seek out what does resonate. Every reader wants something different.

However, I'm one of the lucky ones. Not only do I have access to the internet, so I can research online, but I also have access to some university library databases. Now I can find a huge range of articles, ebooks, scanned books (I hope legally), reviews and summaries that might assist me in my quest for the perfect essay. :)

But a blog post by Seanen McGuire a few days ago here has kept me thinking about this topic. She says that 20% - 1 in 5 Americans - don't have any access to the internet. I'm going to quote from her blog post (I hope she doesn't mind!):
It is sometimes difficult for me to truly articulate my reaction to people saying that print is dead. I don't want to be labeled a luddite, or anti-ebook; I love my computer, I love my smartphone, and I love the fact that I have the internet in my pocket. The existence of ebooks means that people who can't store physical books can have more to read. It means that hard-to-find and out of print material is becoming accessible again. I means that people who have arthritis, or weak wrists, or other physical disabilities that make reading physical books difficult, can read again, without worrying about physical pain. I love that ebooks exist.

This doesn't change the part where, every time a discussion of ebooks turns, seemingly inevitably, to "Print is dead, traditional publishing is dead, all smart authors should be bailing to the brave new electronic frontier," what I hear, however unintentionally, is "Poor people don't deserve to read."
In the media, I see a lot of stuff about the gap that is growing between the richest and the poorest, not just in the US but in Australia and other countries. Our (un)esteemed current premier politician in Victoria, Ted Ballieu, tried very early on in his election campaign, to present himself as someone who understood the "battler" - which in itself is a term that has been so commandeered by politicians here as to become a joke. What did Ted try to do not so long ago here? Cut funding to public libraries. Thankfully the huge protests (unreported by the media, I might add) made him back down.

Those of us who are able to buy books (in any format) tend to forget how many other people not only don't or can't buy books, but don't and probably won't have access to the reading technology of the future because of cost. All of those ereaders that we debate over - and I am one of the debaters! - are meaningless to a huge proportion of our population who don't even have a computer at home. If you can't afford a $10 book, why on earth would you even consider a $150 Kindle or a $600+ iPad?

When I was a kid, I was 10 before I owned my first book (a gift). I relied on my school library and then later, the public library in town. Now I will spend money on books before I spend it on movies or DVDs or dinners out. That's my choice. There are a lot of families who need to spend money on rent and food before books even get considered. Kids need both public libraries and school libraries. They need books they can take home. Not computers in the library or classroom that tell them a few things while they have their turn.

Before we start debating the various experiences of a paper book versus an ebook, let's stop a moment and think about how a paper book gives simple and cheap (free via libraries) access to learning and reading experiences for millions of kids who aren't going to get it electronically. And let's support our school and public libraries. We can lobby our politicians at ALL levels (a lot of public library funding here comes via local councils), not just for public library support but for school library support.

There have been a lot of new school libraries built in Australia over the past 3 years, thanks to building funding, but too often there have been not nearly enough books to put in them. Call me a luddite, but I don't believe that replacing books with computers is a sensible move. But more than that, our schools need librarians to encourage and help kids to borrow books that excite and interest them, that give them the mind-expanding experiences that TV and computer games will never come close to. ALL of our kids should have access to books and libraries, not just the ones who can afford it.


Kerry said...

Hi Sheryl
I have been lucky enough to have a job in our local library this year and am thrilled by the number of kids of all ages who come in regularly. They may spend some time on the computers but most do browse the shelves and sit down and have a look through a book or two. The younger ones are the most enthusiastic though and I love watching them sitting at the table looking through the books with their siblings or friends. We try to ensure they have fun in their library and hope they will be lifetime visitors.

Sherryl said...

Thanks, Kerry. I think introducing kids to the huge array of books available and getting them excited is an excellent job for a library to do!

Cathy said...

Sherryl, I love books too and libraries for that matter. I hope you don't mind but I mentioned your blog post on my blog as I have just discovered the local library here in a village in Italy (1700 residents). The library is only open two afternoons a week, but they are increasing the book collection - which I think is great.

Sherryl said...

Cathy, your library sounds like a real village library! Are the books in English or Italian?
You should post a photo.

Cathy said...

I must admit I didn't ask if they had any books in English. I will do next time, as well as take a photo of the interior.

Angela Sunde. said...

The principal of Tambourine Mt College, Qld, recently posted this ad in the Courier Mail. He proudly states he's looking for a Teacher Librarian for a library with NO BOOKS (the capital letters were used in his ad).
And recently at Coomera Rivers State School (Qld) a brand new library (called the IT Centre) also has hardly any books as yet. The Ed dept's are pushing to cut costs and promote themselves as being forward thinking. But I agree that they're not thinking about the poor families.