Do libraries still matter?
In the digital age, where everyone has access to everything, how can an institution centered on physical media maintain relevance?
“We don’t come here very often,” said John, holding a shed restoration manual among other how-to guides. “I only come here for the resources. My wife buys most of her books online.”
John isn’t alone. Libraries have become nearly anachronistic in the age of mass consumption. Why go the library to borrow the newest film by your favourite director when it’s probably already on Netflix? Or why go borrow the newest album from your favourite artist when it’s a Tidal exclusive?
In the digital age, where everyone has access to everything, how can an institution centered on physical media maintain relevance? The City of Waterloo is betting that libraries haven’t exhausted their relevance and can still provide value to the community. In their recently released budget for 2016-18, the city will allocate an additional $326,711 in funding to the public library system in order to maintain services levels.
But the question remains: what services does the library provide that can’t be found elsewhere?
Many students view libraries predominantly as a workspace. The shelves in the library on Wilfrid Laurier University’s campus are lined with dusty hardcovers filled with dense academic jargon; picked up once every few years by overachieving students. The atmosphere gradually intensifies from main floor conversations to the “silent seven” where the air is so tense a single word spoken might spark an explosion.
Just down the road on Albert Street, the central branch of the Waterloo Public Library reverses this dynamic. Books, both fiction and non-fiction along with magazines and DVDs create a bright, vibrant setting where the atmosphere is calm, yet never stress-filled. Yet, the resources are only a small portion of what the library provides to its visitors, said Laurie Prentice, an employee at the information desk.
“We’re definitely a community hub. We have programs for seniors and youth and the library is always busy, especially the Harper branch.”
The library also continues to counter the perception of being outdated and lack purpose.
“We’re constantly evolving,” added Prentice. “We’ve added computers and new programs and services.”
After our conversation, I looked over to see her assisting an elderly woman with her computer issues. The most frequent recreational users of the library services are normally either adolescents or the elderly. Many students and young adults are seemingly disengaged.
“I think it’s losing relevance, sadly,” said Taylor, a visitor at the library. “I’d come with my family when I was little, then I didn’t come for a while.”
Taylor re-incorporated the library into her routine as part of an attempt to break her habit of spending too much money on books at Chapters. She encourages others to do the same.
“I think if people knew what they were missing, it would be a lot more full.”
Libraries have always been viewed as buildings containing a wealth of information and knowledge, but increasingly, their purpose is expanding and fostering a sense of community.
On the front window on the Central Library, “Welcome to Canada” is sprawled across the windows in bright red and white lettering, with the message echoed underneath in Arabic to reinforce that a library can be an essential part of “home.”