Public libraries are an accepted feature of towns and cities across New Zealand. Photo: Stewart Butterfield

The Auckland Council has announced that 74 staff will be cut from the city’s libraries, and that $1.8 million will be slashed from the libraries’ $65m operating budget — do libraries still have a place in this digital age?

The widespread dismay caused by Auckland City Council’s recent decision to make cuts in library staffing is in some ways heartening for the public library community. Although arising from what many consider an unwelcome development, the expressions of support that have accompanied reports of the cuts show how highly people from all walks of life value their public libraries and librarians. In fact, surveys have shown that even those who don’t use public libraries on a regular basis generally appreciate having a public library within their neighbourhoods and, importantly, are willing for a portion of their rates to be spent on funding them, indicating that public libraries are an accepted feature of towns and cities across New Zealand. We might say that the enduring support for their provision symbolises our society’s high regard for literacy, learning, culture and quality of life.

Of course, not all the public comments on the news stories of Auckland’s cuts have been positive, perhaps reflecting the stated motivation behind the decision – the “digital shift”. Although the supporters always seem to outnumber the detractors, there are invariably those who raise the question: “Why do we need libraries now that we have the Internet?”. By now, librarians are used to explaining, usually patiently, that not everything is online, that not everyone has access to the Internet and that libraries are about so much more than “just” books and printed resources.

In many ways, the dichotomy between libraries on the one hand and the Internet on the other is a false one. Librarians are not Luddites determined to hold back the forces of digital progress; librarians love the Internet and I don’t know one who doesn’t use it every day in their work. In community libraries up and down the country, library staff are providing access to the Internet and helping people use digital resources. New, innovative services are being developed, taking advantage of IT advances to add value and enhance people’s experiences of using their libraries whether this is on-site, in the library building, or virtually through access to e-books and other online collections. This is hardly the work of technological sceptics.

Access to all the information in the world is meaningless if we can’t tell the difference between fact and fake. 

Librarians also understand the limits of the Internet, however, and while appreciating the additional functionality it brings they also know that in this era of fake news and alternative facts, helping people find their way through the ever-increasing glut of information is vital. Access to all the information in the world is meaningless if we can’t tell the difference between fact and fake. Public libraries and their staff have long been trusted intermediaries, helping people find, access and use reliable and authoritative information. The need for this kind of guidance seems more, not less, important even as unimaginable amounts of data and information are available instantly at people’s fingertips through their phones, tablets and laptops.

Moving beyond the digital, the role of the physical library space within the community has also never been so significant. In our increasingly individualistic society, libraries are all about building relationships and while we can do this virtually, face-to-face contacts, however fleeting, formed in the library make for stronger communities. Programmes focusing on learning in the widest sense of the word bring a huge cross-section of society into the library to meet, engage and spend time together and so contribute to civic life. And while there are other meeting places in our neighbourhoods, the “womb to tomb” nature of the services and facilities offered by the public library means that they are more inter-generational and cross-cultural than most. Another important feature is the open and non-commercial nature of the library space. Although public libraries charge for aspects of their service, nobody is trying to sell you anything in the library, there is no pressure to buy and there is no judgment of your choices. There are few other spaces that you can just “be” without somebody questioning your presence or your motivation.

While librarians are very happy to let people “be” in the library, as long as they are not being a nuisance to others, their work is increasingly about making connections, capitalising on the serendipitous nature of much of what goes on in libraries. The public library supports chance encounters of all kinds: people browse the shelves and find unexpected gems; they come across a digitised photograph of a building long gone that they used to frequent and make a comment on the website; they chat about the events of the day in the newspaper corner; and they build friendships through group activities centred around reading, learning and creativity. Public libraries are vital and vibrant places for connections of all kinds and our communities are richer for their presence.

Anne Goulding is Professor of Library and Information Management in the School of Information Management at Victoria University of Wellington.

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