Libraries in the digital era
I love visiting our local public libraries. These community spaces have an atmosphere of enthusiastic learning and always a friendly face to help me find what I’m looking for. We’re lucky to have such well-resourced and well-supported information hubs.
But globally, public libraries are under pressure. Increasing access to ebooks and reduced demand for printed materials puts future funding into a quandary. Austerity measures have closed many UK libraries and without flexibility, we aren’t immune to changes here. Having recently spent six weeks travelling around South Island, I witnessed some of the difficulties our libraries face.
Ian Littleworth, Chair of The Association of Public Library Managers states that ‘‘public libraries sit at the heart of local communities’’ and new policies ‘‘firmly place libraries in the digital era’’.
Ten years ago, a significant step was taken towards bringing libraries into that digital era. Government funding created the Aotearoa People’s Network Kaharoa (APNK) – a free national internet network enabling essential access to knowledge. Crowds huddled around libraries, day and night, surfing the web, is now a familiar sight.
A further $1.5 billion investment is promised for making ultra-fast fibre-optic broadband available to 75 per cent of the population by 2021. This will apparently deliver 100mbps download and 50mbps upload speeds. About 57 per cent of rural New Zealanders should have access to broadband speeds of 5mbps by next year with most rural public libraries and schools included.
My experience in South Island shows there is a long way to go before easy internet access is achieved nationally.
Phone reception and 3/4G data signals are often intermittent and unreliable. Wi-fi is severely restricted (even when paying). I made use of the APNK where possible, but libraries were often inadequate or inflexible.
In one library there was nowhere to study. In another, library rules dictated no devices could be charged (apparently this prevented thoughtless ‘tourists’ from re-charging their toothbrushes). With a gold coin donation to the nearby op shop, I could access the APNK and work. But I wondered how the library’s digital era could evolve without allowing access to power.
How people interact online has changed beyond imagination.free Massive Open Online Courses encourage learners’ interaction in virtual classrooms.
Public libraries are a logical, community-centred place for connectivity. But policies need to be joined-up and the quality of service needs to be fair and consistent for all New Zealanders.