The role of libraries in the internet age

There is a thing that you put in your pocket, or in a moon bag, or a duffle bag, or handbag or even in a back pack, that you take with you everywhere you go – even if it’s from the lounge to the kitchen – that has made a whole lot of other things, and the people that made them, redundant. That brings us to the question, should books be shelved?

There’s no need nowadays for video cameras, pagers, wristwatches, maps, books, travel games, torches, home telephones, dictation recorders, cash registers, alarm clocks, answering machines, yellow pages, wallets, keys, dictionaries, radios, newspapers and magazines, and pocket calculators. And the one pocketable, baggable little device that’s got rid of them all is the smartphone. There’s a world of disruption behind every tap, swipe and scroll that you make. Is it, along with the Kindle, the Nook and the other e-readers, now going to do away with libraries? Is the age of Google and fingertip information accessibility making the library obsolete?

Libraries are repositories of far more than books. They have traditionally been centres where, students, as well as disadvantaged or powerless sectors of our communities like children and the elderly, have been able to come, for free, to avail themselves of the guidance, the courses, the magic and the peace and quiet that enrich lives, and provide a foundation for learning and discovery. Are the smartphone, the tablet and the Kindle about to take all that away, or should books be shelved?

Erasing ink, bit by bit

Behind that one question, however, lurk many more. Why are e-books actually more expensive for libraries to buy? Why are there limits as to how many times an e-book can be lent out?

And what about the university library, where generations of students found what they needed to supplement, support and reinforce their educations? Will they now be able to sit in their lodgings with their smart devices and at whatever hour of the day or night suits them, unearth the information they need, without the need for catalogues, librarians, stacks, shelves and, of course, books or should books be shelved?

Debating the word

Are the disadvantaged going to become even more disadvantaged because of the cost of devices and downloads, and the limitations on the lending of e-books that no-one, not even the libraries, actually owns? Why is public use of existing libraries declining? Are we not saving paper, and therefore trees, and therefore the planet, by reverting to Google rather than the library? It used to be that we couldn’t do without bank branches, cash, cinemas and even TV – but apps, cards, and Netflix seem to have changed all that. Why shouldn’t the internet dispense with libraries?

It’s a debate. And it’s a debate that goes beyond the emotive question as to whether the physical book, which has been at the heart of the long incubation of modern life, still has a place in our public spaces, even if it does in our hearts. There are big implications in this debate too – for teaching and learning, for the society of the future, for tomorrow’s African continent, where knowledge and capacity are, and will be, critical to development?

The University of Johannesburg (UJ), as a leader of probing and innovative academic thought on the continent, is fostering this debate, and the questions that this debate both springs from and generates. The university has embarked on web-based series of Cloudebates, with discussion panels that include academics, media, students, alumni and industry experts, to discuss every aspect of the Fourth Industrial Revolution as it impacts our lives.

UJ is well aware that there are passionate views on either side of the question whether, and how, libraries can remain relevant, and that the question is one in which everyone will have an opinion. That’s why, at its third Cloudebate of 2019, in which this issue will be addressed, everyone is invited.

The cost of sharing

If libraries become repositories of electronic information, would they own the material? How will they get around the fact that e-publishers and electronic platforms rigidly restrict the sharing of their material? And if published matter is not shared for free, and without restriction, can the repository in any meaningful sense still be called a library? What if libraries don’t succeed in balancing the commercial and societal pressures of the new digital world of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Will they remain relevant and justify any public cost at all? Do we really want libraries that are “open” 24 hours a day, seven days a week – and if they are, how will that impact our working and study lives?

Books and their accessibility have always aroused passions, and have often been at the forefront of revolutionary thought. Is this debate an instance where books might themselves be the passive subject, rather than the active driving force, of change?

Creating tomorrow

As modern societies struggle to create opportunities for universal progress, and as Africa commits itself to a vision of vibrant development, the cost-free access to information that is at the heart of what libraries stand for, will need to be addressed. Say your say, and join UJ in exploring the possibilities, and in click into the Cloudebate (should books be shelved) that the university is holding on the subject on [date] at [link].

It’s through this kind of rigorous debate that we can all contribute to the future we want to see for our children. In fostering the robust exchange of ideas on its Cloudebate platform, UJ is emphatically reaffirming its commitment to creating tomorrow.