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In Defence of our Libraries…..

The recent furore over the renovations of the Trent University has highlighted the severe disconnect between those who use libraries and those who have been charged to administer and fund them.  Trent will be closing its library building for a much needed renovation, for an entire year. This has brought up two main issues: first what are students to do in the meantime, and second, who will the new library function afterwards.

Mixed up within these issues is the fact that the university officials seem to be oblivious as to how students and staff use these facilities.  As was stated by a number of Trent students and staff in interviews with the media since the story broke, the library stacks are an important way in which they access information.  Sure, the library has an electronic catalogue where users can look up the location of specific books, but ultimately it is the shelf where it is located that informs them of the breadth on the topic.

Computer catalogues are useful tools, of that there is no doubt, but they are not designed for browsing.  The programming is not able to replicate the ways in which individuals locate information.

During the renovations the library seems to be offering an “Amazon” type experience, where the student orders a book, and has it delivered to some location on campus, and then they take it back to wherever to read. It has been pointed out by many that this system ignores the fact that libraries are a place to read books, a quiet place to study with easy access to the important sources of information.

While the renovations to the building were no doubt needed, questions have been raised as to the changes being made to it.  It seems that those who planned it are very keen to build a library of the future.  The thing is we live in the present, and perhaps by looking so far forward they ignore how we currently access, process and use information, and the rate that technological change is actually incorporated into our social and professional lives.

I cannot but think of the sales of digital books.  A few years ago all were touting the benefits and future of digital books.  It was said that their popularity would replace the physical book.  And for a while digital sales were booming.  Digital books currently account for 20% of sales [http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/retailing/article/70696-as-e-book-sales-decline-digital-fatigue-grows.html ]

 

The Bata Research & Innovation Cluster will be a part of the changes to the library, and was described as “The funding received from the federal and provincial governments, combined with commitments from the library and generous donors, will revolutionize the research and collaborations that take place at the Bata Library as it becomes a third millennium research, innovation, and entrepreneurship hub.” And while I think the centre sounds like a lovely idea, I am wondering why it needs to be in a library?  Why cannot the library be a place for books and study?

 

Because to accommodate this new “cluster” the library is having to purge 50% of its collection.  The university assures the public that the 50% being eliminated will be carefully chosen, but such a high number of books being lost cannot but mean that some essentials will be lost.   I am sure the librarian are not making their decisions lightly as to what stays and goes, but there is no one who can convince me that a librarian actually embraces the loss of half of their collection.  There was mention of the increase of digital content which would free up spaces in the library, but there are no guarantees that what you have eliminated in paper will miraculously appear in e-books.  Trent President Leo Groake was quoted in the local Peterborough Examiner as saying libraries cannot just be “museums for old paper” (PE, Oct 12, 2016). [https://ocufa.on.ca/blog-posts/books-ready-dustbin-history/]  I cannot even imagine what he was thinking when he said that.  Libraries have never just been “museums for old paper,” but living breathing places of study, knowledge and reflection.

 

I am not trying to pick on Trent University specifically, although I call on them to rethink what they are doing to their library, and how they are handicapping their students by limiting their access to a well-stocked research library.  I will say that this is part of a worrying trend, where people who clearly do not actually use libraries decide to limit or eliminate libraries and their collections.  Books are the window to our world, the past, the present and the future.  Paper books are still the most favoured way to access information, and while I believe that libraries should embrace new technologies, they shouldn’t eliminate the old ones in a bid to appear modern or on-trend.

 

Please read Neil Gaiman’s words about the importance of libraries here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming

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