The mission of the public library in a digital world – Jens Thorhauge

Jens Thorhauge
The world is already digital and the speed of change deriving from it is accelerating. A lot of useful research has been carried out on the impact of digital technologies on the late modern society but we certainly recognize the changes in the media landscape and in the patterns of user behaviour also by our own observations.
In this situation the basic question could be: when everything becomes digital and really within reach of your fingertips on a handhold device what is then the role of the library? The answer would of course start with a: that depends on what user needs the library turns to fullfil.
In a digital media world based on copyright a new role of the library is to become digital and give access to licensed material. That role is already being developed and has been working for years in many countries.
But how does that influence the traditional library? Will it gradually wither away as the old school users die? Will the last turning point for the library come when the majority of a population use e-readers or what the name will be of that device that everybody are expecting to be around the corner – so that you easily and affordable can carry your library in your pocket?
At least at the moment my answer is no, it seems that the public library will survive but with changed roles.

The very clear trend that we experience in the Nordic countries is that more and more people use the library without borrowing anything. They read the newspapers and journals, use the computers, study, join a cultural event, visit an exhibition or get help to manage some digital service or follow a course in searching the web.
The bigger the library the more people use the library space in these ways.
And the number of visitors grow in spite of the trend that number of loans of traditional materials are going down. On the other hand downloads from the library are growing rapidly, so no doubt about a new digital library role.
Though the conditions for the libraries and their users have changed radically, there is still a market for traditional library services, but the younger generations find themselves on new platforms and use the library for something else than gaining access to information. From access to enabling could be the description of a development tendency. Access is still important, but the library cannot base its existence on giving access to information as you will have access from many other sources. The situation calls for solutions based on the new reality, including the new technology and the new media. The library’s task will increasingly demand not only to give access to information, but also to help the user to assimilate it and exploit it.
The public library’s possibility of successfully becoming a central institution in terms of facilitating learning and inspiration in the emerging knowledge society definitely exists. The extremes in the spectre of possibilities we can imagine are, however, different. On the one hand ICT opens up the possibility for creating the perfect library service where access to ‘the human record’ is integrated into our daily lives – always only just a few clicks away – and information access should also be combined with access to hotlines that offer help and guidance. With a well-functioning service like that the library will have the majority of the public as patrons.
This – slightly utopian – model presupposes that a solution has been found in relation to payment for access to copyright-based material. The prices asked today are prohibitive for applying this library concept to all the library’s materials.
The other – slightly dystopian – model is based on a scenario with the price for access to digital media so high that the new library cannot in fact live up to the ‘universal access’ model at all, which libraries have been striving for worldwide for decades. A development towards such a situation will probably involve a further widening of the digital divide and consequently further social tension. But the library must also take into account the cultural slide that has taken place – and create a new interaction with the users. In professional library literature you will find an endless number of articles on this development pointing to a more user-oriented role for libraries. Statements on moving from collection to connection focus are endless, from product to user-orientation likewise. Also statements on moving from a library concept as a book container to a community centre can be seen as typical for the new way of thinking.

All these statements and articles reflect a real trend for change that each and every library must confront. To conclude there are at least three major challenges.
The first being that libraries must redefine their role in relation to the changing needs of the users. Turn from collections to users. Facilitating the use of information – in a very broad sense – will probably replace the role of giving access as the most important task. The library could also define an enabling role where empowerment of citizens is at core.
The second challenge is to develop new services in the library and simply to create a new library space where people and activities around them and not the books are predominant. New services should think in including and involving citizens, in supporting them in their ability to exploit the possibilities ofthe knowledge society.
On the other hand
The third challenge is to develop the digital library that gives easy access to licensed and other relevant digital resources. That is a costly and work demanding process. But the turn around from books to people may come up to be the most decisive and most difficult for libraries to handle.

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