Buildings, Books, and Bytes: Libraries and Communities in the Digital Age

By Weiss, Laura | Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Buildings, Books, and Bytes: Libraries and Communities in the Digital Age


Weiss, Laura, Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services


`You can take your kid to the library, but you can't take your kid to a website.'--18 year old highschool student

`If you plopped a library down...30 years from now...there would be cobwebs growing everywhere because people would look at it and wouldn't think of it as a legitimate institution because it would be so far behind...'--Experienced library user

This report is about libraries and the challenges they face in the digital world. But it is also about every noncommercial institution, from public TV to the freenets, that provides information to the public. It uses libraries as an exemplar of what can happen to even our most cherished public institutions when they face the onset of the digital revolution, a seismic societal shift. The report's findings about the intersection, and divergence, of library leaders' visions with those of the public hold lessons for everyone who values and wants to promote the public sphere of information and communications.

This study compares library leaders' visions for the future with the public's prescriptions for libraries, derived from public opinion research that forms the backbone of this study. For the purposes of this study, library leaders are defined by the institutional grantees of the Kellogg Foundation. This research suggests that libraries have their work cut out for them if they do not want to reside on the margins of the revolutionary new digital information marketplace. The younger generation, wedded to desktop computers, may provide a particular challenge.

But this battle is not the libraries' battle alone. At issue is the very notion of a public culture--that nexus of schools, hospitals, libraries, parks, museums, public television and radio stations, community computer networks, local public access, education, and government channels of cable television, and the growing universe of nonprofit information providers on the internet. This public opinion research affirms the need for alliances among these institutions to define their relative and collective roles in an expanding marketplace of information.

How library leaders see the future

Library leaders want the library of the future to be a hybrid institution that contains both digital and book collections. And they assume that it will be the librarian `navigator' who will guide library users to the most useful sources, unlocking the knowledge and information contained in the vast annals of the information superhighway. Some library leaders envision a digital `library without walls' in which users gain access to almost unlimited amounts of information through home computers or at remote terminals located around the community. They also envision a time when one library's collection will, because of growing electronic capabilities, become everyone's collection.

Library leaders see a continuing role for the library building. As a central and valued community meeting space, the library will become more of a civic integrator and a locus of community information on health, education, government, and other local services. Library leaders also express considerable concern about the `information have note,' individuals who do not have access to computers or online information. And they argue for a social activist role for libraries in which citizens could receive literacy information or acquire health and job information. They nevertheless express reservations about the library becoming marginalised by taking on exclusively the role of information safety net.

Public backing for libraries of the future

The public loves libraries but is unclear about whether it wants libraries to reside at the centre of the evolving digital revolution, or at the margins. Trusting their libraries and seeing them as a source of comfort in an age of anxiety, Americans support their public libraries and hold them in high esteem. They support a combined role for libraries that links digital and traditional book and paper information resources. …

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