Is a decline in library lending really a "shock"?

FalllibrariesApparently the East Anglian Daily Times is “shocked” that library lending is declining. Perhaps next week they will run a story of shock declines in CD purchasing or even newspaper circulation. I don’t make this point to have a go at the EADT. The decline in library lending, CDs and newspapers all has exactly the same cause. The rise of the Internet and digital media.

None of this is any kind of a shock. It has been happening for many years and it is going to continue.

Those that have failed to embrace the move to digital have ended up dead or dying. Jessops, Comet, HMV to name a few.

The same fate awaits others - including libraries and newspapers - who fail to rise to the challenge and opportunity that the digital world offers.

In fact trying to read the EADTs article presented something of a challenge. I read the front page on my iPad using the EADT’s newspaper app and was told to turn to page 4 to read the rest of the article. However p4 had nothing about libraries on it at all! I had to fire up my laptop and change the “edition” of the electronic version of the EADT to read the story.

The story also didn’t appear on the EADT website until lunchtime. I guess because they don’t get enough revenue from the website and want people to buy the print or electronic copies. All this is understandable. The paper needs money to survive.

It’s not just newspapers that have problems with clunky digital interfaces. One of the reasons library eBook lending hasn’t risen as fast as it might is that it is not as easy as it should be to borrow eBooks. For example Amazon won’t allow its Kindle platform to be used for library lending in the UK but they do in the US.

Cllr Judy Terry, Suffolk’s portfolio holder for libraries is someone I have not always seen eye to eye with but her comments in the EADT article sum up the situation:
“We just have to recognise and address the fact that this is the current trend – but even if this trend continues I don’t think it will pose a risk to the future of our libraries. Libraries have to adapt and meet changing needs but they have been doing that for the last 30 years – and will continue to do so. They offer central hubs of resources and places of research. They still serve a purpose to the community.” 
Libraries are already re-inventing themselves to meet the digital age. I’m lucky enough to be attending the Edge conference in Edinburgh next week which is all about the future of libraries. Whilst the digital age is a challenge to libraries it also offers a massive opportunity.


But the comments from Education portfolio holder Graham Newman seem more curious. He appears concerned about the decline in reading “hard copy books” as if reading a paper book is somehow different to a book read on an iPad or a Kindle
“It is disappointing and distressing. Reading hard-copy books is an essential learning tool for children. It will still be vital in future ages no matter what the technological advances are. “

It teaches children how to think and discuss things with their parents. It improves their communication and confidence skills.

“They need to be sat with their parents reading books to each other because reading on the Internet or iPads or anything else is never going to be able to replace that.

“If children cannot read when they leave primary school they are in for a hell of a tough time at secondary school. You cannot make up for lost time like that. It will affect their examination results.”
The thing is I think Newman is completely wrong. Electronic books will for the most part replace physical books just like electronic music has replaced CDs. We have already seen this in academic libraries where particularly science journals have long moved to online only. A much better format for storing journals and at least the article you need isn’t lost or require a lengthy journey to get hold of.

Children are growing up with technology as this charming video entitled A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work shows: 

Tablets make particularly good devices for parents and children to sit and share and can create a much more engaging experience for younger children by combining touch, sound and both still and moving pictures.

Newman also suggests attracting young people back to libraries was going to “be a tough problem to solve”  But this half term week libraries have been full of the happy sound of children sometimes with their parents or joining groups reading or even singing. Declining lending doesn’t mean children aren’t coming into libraries.

If anything reading and writing is even more important in the digital age than it was in the age dominated by print that is coming to an end now. Of course printed text was itself a technological innovation many years ago beginning the whole age of mass literacy and communication that we take for granted today.

I’m absolutely sure that libraries will be here for many, many years and I hope local newspapers will be too. Both have an important role in the local community. Both need to change and meet the challenges of the digital age.
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