Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Other Challenges to Literature [a case study]

This blog was created not only to explore specific and general cases of censorship, but other challenges to literature, including challenges to those institutions that provide literature for public consumption.  In this case, I am speaking about public libraries, and specifically in response to an opinion piece that the Vancouver Sun allowed to run a week or so back.  The article, titled "We should shut our libraries," was written by a british librarian who has not worked in a library since 1994.

Mr. McTernan attempts (and I say "attempt" purposely because I believe he does a terribly poor job of actually saying anything meaningful) to address reasons to keep libraries open, shooting them down one by one and finally claiming that libraries just aren't needed anymore.  The same was said when radio first started up and later when television became big and then when electronic books started coming out.  Has the library folded?  No.  Is it expensive?  Yes.  Does that mean we need to get rid of them?  Heck no!

In the week following the publication of Mr. McTernan's article, numerous letters were sent to the editors at the Vancouver Sun from outraged librarians from the BC Library Association and the Canadian Library Association.  Let's take a look at why librarians got so fired up about the issue (and why I got pretty darn upset as well):
Take reference services, once the core of the public library's educational role. Access to information has been transformed by the Internet. Google a subject and you can become ridiculously well-informed ridiculously quickly. Engrossing lectures from the planet's best minds are freely available on university websites, from the TED (Technology Entertainment and Design) conference series, or on BBC iPlayer. Channels such as BBC Four or Sky Arts provide a wide range of high quality documentaries across a multitude of subjects. We live in an information-rich society - so we should celebrate its availability, not yearn for a time when you had to go to the central library for it.
Perhaps Mr. McTernan has not been to a library recently, but in my area there is always a line-up of people asking librarians questions at the information desk.  The questions are most definitely different than they once were, but that does not change the fact that people still go to the library for reference purposes.  Yes, the average person might be able to find some information on the internet using Google.  But are they necessarily finding the best information?  Have they come up with good keywords and search terms?  Librarians are constantly helping people (students especially) formulate a good series of keywords with which to utilize internet searches to their maximum capacity.  The questions have changed, but the service is still necessary.
Then there's the argument that your local library is the gateway to a national and international network of literature and education. So it is - but so is your computer. Time was, to get hold of a particular book, you would have to go to a library and ask. Now, with AbeBooks and Alibris, almost all the second-hand bookshops in the world are available to search. This is as true for new books as for old: More than 130,000 titles were published in the United Kingdom in 2009, and 330 million new books were purchased.
Alright Mr. McTernan, I will concede that the using a computer at home is more convenient at times, but I cannot tell you how often I have used a library (from home) to access databases that I would otherwise have to pay hundreds of dollars per year to access.  How often does the average student actually spend money to access online databases to look for articles.  How many people in this day and age can afford to buy all the books they need instead of getting them for free?
The final defence of the public library is that it is a place for the pupil who has nowhere else to study and revise. Once again, this is the 21st century. Virtually every kid has a desk at home, even if it often has a games console on it. And libraries at secondary schools are, in my experience, uniformly good and open places for young people. Few institutions are timeless. Most reflect the period when they were created, and have to change as society changes if they are to survive. The crisis in our libraries is not because of the "cuts" - it's because they are needed less.
Let's get to some statistics now.  Perhaps the situation is different in England.  In fact, I know it is.  But the point here, is that Mr. McTernan's article was published in British Columbia, the most active and well-utilized library network in Canada.  And we are to believe that libraries should be cut?  Another article, published in the Vancouver Sun on November 4th took a good look at stats in relation to McTernan's claims and came up with the following:
About 2.7 million British Columbians hold public library cards. Hundreds of thousands more don’t have cards but visit the library regularly – in some cases, every day. Last year, B.C. libraries received more than 30 million in-person visits, a 10-per-cent increase from 2009. That is clear evidence of the growing and sustainable demand for libraries. Beyond that, there were 27 million virtual visits. For many people, losing their library access would mean losing a vital
part of their lives. 
True, not everyone uses libraries, but perhaps they don’t understand what they are missing. Libraries have been transformed with the times. A Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep in 1994 — the year McTernan’s career as a librarian ended — and woke up today would not recognize the thriving, wired libraries that are ready and able to serve an information-hungry population. With ebook readers, digital materials, and electronic reference transactions, libraries have kept pace and embraced the digital age.
Well, I think the rebuttal pretty much knocked Mr. McTernan's arguments to the ground without much hope of standing up again.  Of course, part of the problem was the Vancouver Sun thinking it was a good idea to publish an article specific to the United Kingdom over here in BC in the first place.  In any case, this post is to show how important libraries are, as places of learning, knowledge, and as social spaces.  And of course, let's not forget the important work of libraries as spaces that hold high the idea of Freedom to Read!

Thanks for listening...