“I bet the internet has brought down library use…” is one of the first things people say to me when I tell them I’m a librarian. In fact, it’s not true. The unvarnished truth is that library use has risen by a lot since the world wide web became commonplace in the early nineties. In my view, the reasons for this are relatively uncomplicated; in the same way that the internet has made some areas of everyday life more efficient, it has also improved the way libraries serve their patrons. Meaning, instead of replacing libraries, it has helped them do what they’ve always done, but better! Here are five ways the libraries and the internet work together:
1. Answers to your questions, faster
While the need for librarians to spend time answering basic “ready reference” questions (a president’s birth year, for example) has gone way down thanks to the web, research queries are still very much an everyday part of library life. However, contrary to how it was for a librarian in 1980s, the web has opened a whole other dimension of the information landscape in which to pursue answers. A librarian’s advanced search skills combined with instant access to a plethora of deep web resources means research avenues that used to take days or weeks to follow, can take minutes. This is a boon to researchers and librarians alike!
2. Educational possibilities
No one would argue that the open web is lacking in free, high-quality learning resources. That said, while many of these resources are wonderful, they are best-suited for highly-motivated auto-didacts who don’t need the watchful eye of a skilled professor to assist in learning. Additionally, for all of the good stuff there is online, there are also a lot of mediocre or downright awful resources for learners. Libraries, on the other hand, leverage the digital world by providing free access to top-notch classes, online tutoring, and learning materials on a variety of topics through name-brand vendors like Lynda.com and Gale Courses. Unlike most online classes, the latter allows students to interact with highly-qualified teachers, which is really useful when you have a complicated question about a complex topic. And I’m not just blowing hot air here, I’ve personally found both Gale Courses and Lynda.com enormously useful for my professional development. The point is that libraries build on the web to offer hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars in valuable education resources to patrons.
3. More stuff for you!
Library fans know the marvelous feeling of being in a well-stocked library. Now, take that feeling and amplify it by a thousand! Since at least the early 2000s, libraries have been extending their collections beyond their physical shelves by purchasing licenses to online books, audiobooks, music, and films. What that means is most aptly put by the title of this section: Thanks to the internet, the library is able to have “more stuff for you!” and you don’t even have to leave the house to get it!
4. Necessary new services
Internet access, digital literacy classes, and coding workshops are just three important library services that didn’t exist en masse in libraries before the rise of the web. Internet access especially has grown to be a default at libraries, which is crucial to note because despite the fact that many in the United States have some access to the internet, millions don’t. Furthermore, many that do don’t have the knowledge and skills to harness that access. This isn’t age-related, either, as many think. In my experience, while young people are typically fine at physically manipulating their devices to do basic things, they are no better than their elders at identifying scams, fake news, and/or low-quality research information. That’s where libraries come in…
5. The library is growing!
My favorite of S. R. Ranganathan’s five laws of library science is number five: “The library is a growing organism”. It occurred to me as I was writing this article that the whole thing has meaning for libraries beyond their relationship to the web. I often tell people that since the outset, libraries have never stopped adapting to meet the needs of their patrons — while it may not be obvious from day-to-day observation, libraries are incredibly dynamic! Librarians have regularly assimilated emerging points of information access, innovations in physical architecture, and responsive new services over the approximately 150-year existence of public libraries. So, naturally, the library is a growing organism!