When I arrived at Durham as a fresher, one of the initial things I did was to acquaint myself with the libraries available to me. Both my college library and the Billy B were thoroughly explored within my first week. Growing up, my parents took me to our local library on the weekends to pick out a few books for the week ahead. I can still remember the novels that I lovingly renewed again and again and the events I took part in ran by the kindly librarian. Looking back on my childhood filled with these regular trips, I wonder if they contributed to my desire to pursue a degree in English and History. I know that my experience is not unique to me and that others have been inspired by the valuable institution that is a public library. For example, William Kamkwamba from Malawi frequented his local school library and after borrowing a book about windmills, he learned how to build his own energy-producing turbine for his village.
However, despite their inspirational capabilities, libraries have been coming under threat in recent years. Many people view libraries as unnecessary thanks to the ability to find so much online so quickly without having to leave your home. Digital books and online forums negate the need to go to the library to find a particular text or meet like-minded individuals. Government expenditure on libraries has fallen in the past few decades as well as library usage. A UK survey published in 2020 asked participants if they had visited a library each year from 2005 to 2019 and the answers collected revealed a decrease in visitations by roughly 15%.
As well as the view that these institutions are no longer needed, there are also many misconceptions about libraries. They are not just a house for books but a place of education with enormous resources ranging from works of fiction to free web access. For students, libraries play a key role in their school or university career. They enable all to access any required texts, expand interests and even just act as a physical space to go to when stressed and in need of a quiet place to work. Libraries also exist virtually and thus can distribute resources remotely, which, in the pandemic, has been especially useful. Additionally, in recent years many works have been created digitally and so don’t exist in a print format which further demonstrates the importance of a library’s virtual existence.
Libraries also are excepted from some copyright laws which means that they have the ability to preserve, restore and replace. They can lawfully copy or digitalise an old sound recording or newspaper or move electronic content from an obsolete mode of storage to one in current usage. Without these legal exceptions, many works would undoubtedly be lost for future generations. Their preservative quality is what makes libraries so essential.
The arguments against the importance of libraries are therefore without substance as they are so much more than people think. Yes, much can be found online without having to use a library to access it but in the future, I am sure it will be these centres of learning that ensure that all works are taken care of for the benefit of future generations.
Image: Sabina Sturzu via Unsplash