Glenn Tucker | Save our libraries
The subject of libraries has been in the news recently. There is a feeling in some quarters that with the onset of social media and Wi-Fi, libraries have become obsolete and should be closed. Things become obsolete when they are no longer used or are no longer useful.
My early memories of the public library in Brown’s Town, St Ann, were of a place that not only had lots of books, but where we went to meet friends and where some community events were held. The likelihood, then, of a printer being located in the library was far from anybody’s mind. But change is the only constant, and libraries and librarians will continue to be relevant as we continue to push forward in the Digital Age.
Perhaps a brief history will help us to understand the great purpose of libraries and show how libraries will continue to be relevant during the Digital Age.
The creation of the first libraries marks the end of prehistory and the start of recorded human history. As Egyptians and others developed the earliest forms of writing, scribes began to create archives of clay tablets that listed inventories and records of commercial transactions. They often shared key pieces of information needed to build societies. Documents accumulated by the scribes included medical records, inventories of yearly harvest surpluses, to laws that governed city states, like the Code of Hammurabi. This enabled them to draw on information when needed.
As paper was developed, grand libraries like the Library of Alexandria were built to house the large scrolls that were being developed. Librarians played the important role of connecting scholars with critical information.
As antiquity ended, religious institutions began to take over the functions of private libraries. As the Renaissance and later Enlightenment movements spread throughout Europe, non-religious libraries were opened.
By the 1800s and early 1900s, public libraries were opened in the US and Europe. They were open to everyone.
It is argued that with e-books and the internet, libraries are no longer required. But libraries are not just there for us to browse and borrow. They provide other services and are an important social space.
About 12 years ago, I was mentoring one of our promising athletes. As I was getting to know her, she opened up about conditions in the tenement yard in which she lived. She recalled a toxic, violent environment, but spoke as if it was a problem for the others and not for her.
“So how you deal with it?” I wanted to know.
She was almost dismissive when she said, “Me? As soon as it start me just head fi di library … and nobody see me till library close.”
It would be foolish to understate the usefulness of social media and the internet. But some sources are less than reliable. I have found myself in the embarrassing position of urgently forwarding information from the Internet to acquaintances, only to be told that I am peddling fake news. This has never happened with information from a library.
Bill Gates built a high school. They used only e-book texts and students were each loaned a state-of-the-art laptop for 24/7 study. I am reliably informed that Gates, parents and some teachers nearly fell of their collective chairs when it was revealed that students’ reading and other scores were lower – year after year – compared to comparable high schools.
E-books have their place, but years of research have shown that retention and learning are better with traditional books. Neurologists, teachers and others say they have theories why this is so, but I have not seen any research that tells me that anyone actually knows why.
Libraries are doing an important job of preserving the sanctity of writing. The grammatical gymnastics witnessed on some of these sites would never be found in a library. (Hello Jane Austin and Boris Pasternak).
In explaining why libraries are obsolete, detractors insist that all one really needs is on the Internet. But does everyone in this society have access to a computer and Internet? Many of our people have limited financial resources and live in small, shared spaces from which they long to escape. They are not conducive to educational pursuits. Having somewhere to go that is both free and safe is a godsend.
The American Institute of Architecture and the American Library Association honour forward-thinking libraries across the US with an annual Best in Library Design award, recognising buildings designed to serve their communities.
PLACES FOR EDIFICATION
Two years ago, the East Boston branch won with an open plan design to enable “families to visit together and not be corralled into separate rooms, while clear sightings maximise staffing efficiency”.
Those who read my articles will know that I believe that the quality of parents is what is responsible for the state of the nation. Parents used to love libraries. This is less so now than yesteryear.
Two decades ago, I suggested to a single mother that she allow me to take her two children to join the Tom Redcam library. We went, and they borrowed books. During this last Christmas season, a young lady working in a hardware store reminded me that she was one of those children. I was pleased, until she added, “…and we still have the books…”
Well, I comfort myself with the thought that a prominent Jamaican, and one of my university buddies, was in the habit of tearing out and keeping any useful page of any book in the university library to paste on the wall in his room for revision purposes.
Libraries will not become obsolete if they are shifted from being storehouses for curated, physical collection of books to places for edification, job resources, language learning, skill building, socialising and organizing. Public places where people meet are important to communities.
Libraries offer a social hub for many. If, however, stakeholders myopically allow the cost per transaction to increase beyond what the public is willing to pay, it will become obsolete.