Why do we still need public libraries in the digital age?
By Tomas Doherty
After years of declining visitor numbers, libraries are experiencing a resurgence of interest and investment. Tomas Doherty of the British Council in Bangladesh explains how libraries have adapted to new trends in how we read, work and socialise, ahead of the reopening of the British Council library in Dhaka on 20 September.
Technology has changed the way we consume media
Libraries have always been at the heart of the communities they serve. They are accessible and safe spaces, providing access to huge resources of information and knowledge. There are an estimated 315,000 public libraries in the world, 73 per cent of them in developing and transitioning countries. The public library transcends national and cultural boundaries – no matter where you are in the world, they are an essential part of creating and maintaining an educated and literate population.
But today, public libraries are at a turning point. The way we access and consume information has changed dramatically in the 21st century, and this presents major challenges and opportunities for public library systems across the world.
The advent of new technologies has changed some of our reading habits. But our need for shared, community-centred spaces to find information and connect with others is unlikely to change any time soon. To survive in the digital age and stay relevant, public libraries need to be brave and innovative. They must embrace both the physical and virtual.
Libraries must offer more than just books
Regular visitors to libraries expect them to continue providing the services that they have provided for many years. And rightly so – the ‘traditional’ library shouldn’t just disappear. But libraries also need to respond quickly to real changes in how people live their lives.
In the UK, with heightened pressure on public expenditure and lowering visitor numbers, the traditional library system has come under more scrutiny. Why maintain expensive-to-run ‘physical’ libraries when growing numbers of people can already access the information they need from any location? As a result, in recent years public libraries have been threatened with closure across all parts of the country.
But there has also been a major rethink in how exactly the library should be serving the public, and what the library of the future could and should look like. Last year, the Arts Council England published a wide-ranging and detailed piece of research, Envisioning the library of the future, aiming to answer these very questions. As well as emphasising the need for the physical and the digital to sit side by side, it finds that the 21st century public library service will be one in which “local people are more active and involved in its design and delivery.” A sense of community, always a defining feature of libraries, has renewed importance.
People in developing countries like Bangladesh need access to reliable information
In lower-income countries, like Bangladesh, the context for libraries is different but some of the same challenges remain. Bangladesh itself is a small country with a huge population, estimated at around 162 million people. There are high rates of poverty and illiteracy, especially in rural areas. According to the World Bank, 43 per cent of the total adult population is illiterate, with a disproportionate number female. Internet penetration in Bangladesh is only 22 per cent, 10 per cent less than the global average.
Bangladesh urgently needs greater access to reliable information for all its citizens. They want opportunities to develop their literacy, learn skills for employability, and take part in collective educational and cultural activities. In Bangladesh, information is essential to survive and prosper – and lacking the right information can lead to worsening economic poverty.
Libraries are still well-placed to provide some of that knowledge and those opportunities to communities all over Bangladesh. However, there’s also a need for library services to go beyond the ‘traditional’. An increasing digital divide (that has been shown to entrench both gender and class divisions), and ethnic and religious tensions continue unabated in some regions. Just like in the UK, Bangladesh has to rethink how libraries can better meet its population’s needs.
Bangladesh has plenty of libraries, but the quality of their services is inconsistent
Bangladesh’s current library and information services provide access to information to varying degrees, but they are fragmented and unaligned in what they offer. For instance, there are 68 government public libraries, all in urban areas, which have long been in need of investment. There are many more non-governmental public libraries, around 1,000 spread across urban and rural areas. BRAC, the world’s largest NGO, maintains a network of 2650 Gonokendros (multi-purpose community learning centres), mostly located in rural villages; about 10 per cent of these have internet connectivity. The Bangladesh Government’s Access to Information (a2i) programme has also set up a network of Union Information Service Centres (UISCs). These provide limited public internet access and operate in all 4,547 Union Parishads, the lowest tier of local government. Bangladesh’s population is young, growing and ever-changing, so these services will have to find a way to adapt for the future.
The British Council is researching what Bangladesh needs from its libraries
The British Council is doing a year-long research project, the Library Landscape Assessment of Bangladesh. The research aims to get a complete understanding of what people in Bangladesh want from libraries and information services. By looking at the current provision of these services in urban, semi-urban and rural areas, and mapping this against people’s needs, the research will spot opportunities and challenges for implementing major changes.
Bangladesh’s economy is improving fast
Bangladesh has gone through a period of unprecedented economic change over the last two decades, with growth averaging at around five to six per cent year-on-year. The country has been named by Goldman Sachs as one of its ‘next 11′ emerging economies. This speedy development is likely to continue, but for everyone to take part in it and gain equally, the country will need broad-based access to information. Libraries should be at the centre of this.
The British Council has a long history running libraries in South Asia
Historically, the British Council’s international network of libraries played a vital role in educating a generation of leaders. In South Asia in particular, the libraries were, and continue to be, integral parts of the communities they serve. They provided access to a wide range of books and learning materials in the English language that were in limited supply elsewhere. In countries that were once isolated or had closed societies, like Burma, the British Council library was a venerated source of up-to-date information from the wider world.
In Bangladesh, people from all walks of life continue to speak with great respect and nostalgia about the role of the British Council library in their lives; the education it provided, the opportunities it created – many met their spouses there. The organisation first began to offer library services in Dhaka 60 years ago in 1954, in what was then known as East Pakistan. It later expanded to run branch libraries in the regional cities of Chittagong and Rajshahi. Today, there are British Council libraries in Dhaka and Chittagong, with more library services planned to open in Sylhet in early 2015.
Libraries have to update while staying true to the heart of what they offer
Like other library providers, the British Council has had to respond to lifestyle changes in the countries we work in. Our network of libraries has decreased in recent years, reflecting a global trend for fewer library visitors, with people more likely to read books and newspapers digitally, instead of on paper.
Our refurbished library in Dhaka will aim to bridge these two concepts, as it will be both a physical and a virtual space. As well as an updated physical collection of books, CDs and DVDs, the new library will provide users with remote access to over 80,000 e-books and 14,000 e-journals. The same quiet reading and study areas will be there for those who need it, but the library will be also be used as a cultural and social space where people can come together to watch theatre and film screenings, or take part in workshops, seminars, meetings, author talks and fashion events.
The concept of the library continues to hold a special place of importance in people’s hearts – and recent developments, like the reinvention of the Library of Birmingham in the UK (which has two million visitors a year, and lends its digital collections to 10 million people a year), have shown how a library can still be a huge source of pride.