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literature and technology: the library of the future


Pronunciation: /?l??br?ri, -bri/

noun (plural libraries)

a building or room containing collections of books, periodicals, and sometimes films and recorded music for use or borrowing by the public or the members of an institution: a university library (Source)

Unless I’m mistaken, the above definition would suggest that a library is a room filled with books; a place where people can browse and borrow the titles which take their fancy. Recently, a decision made by a South Australian high school forced me to rethink this simple definition. The school decided to donate the 10,000 books in their school library to charity and replace them with 16,000 digital books. Their school now features what could become the library of the future: a library with no books.

I make it no secret that I like ebooks, and that I think they definitely have their place in today’s technology driven world. But never in all my enthusiasm for ebooks did I wish for them to replace physical books, or to be seen as a better alternative. Together, digital and physical books are wonderful things. But the existence of digital books without the existence of physical books is like eating a chocolate cake without the chocolate: a key ingredient is missing.

Let’s forget about the dictionary definition of a library for a minute. To me, a library has always been a place to read, browse books, use computers or study, all for the price of perhaps a smile, and, if you’re in a particularly grumpy mood that day, a visit to the library won’t even cost you that. It is a place to uncover new authors and genres; to learn something new. What intrigues me is that these activities are not confined to physical books. It is possible to read, browse and uncover new authors through digital books. Technology enables people to undertake these activities within the comfort of their own homes. Does that mean that any room with a laptop computer and an internet connection can now be considered a library?

No. It doesn’t. And that’s why I don’t understand the reason why this school decided to jump into the future and abolish their physical library. Part of the appeal of a library is the fact that when you enter, you enter a space which is completely devoted to books and words and reading. There are no other distractions, such as dinner burning on the stove or Aunt Janice on the phone or Rover begging to be fed. The internet only offers more distractions than that. Online shopping, Facebook, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Facebook, you get the idea. Granted, this is a world which is very familiar to these students. They already know how to find any information they could want on the internet and they can do it near quicker than Google throws up the search results. It is probably much more convenient for these students to store all their reading material on their laptops/iPads/tablets and shop/Facebook/tweet while they learn a little about Australian history. But this school has stripped away the one place where these students might set their virtual world aside for an hour and immerse themselves in something a little more real than a computer screen.

Libraries celebrate books and reading, in all their forms and formats. A library is a place to take in the sheer amount of words people have painstakingly organised into coherent text for one reason or another. Removing the physical books from a library in favour of digital books only marginalises the impact books have had and continue to have in the world. Physical books are still very much a part of the book industry, and to suddenly deem their existence old technology and give in to the digital boom neglects the long history of the book.

The very definition of a library determines that it is a room full of books. I am not convinced that replacing physical books with digital books still makes that space a library. We should be reminding ourselves of the importance and place of physical books, and not cast them aside completely in favour of something new. TV did not displace film, and video players did not displace the cinema. Digital and physical can, and should, exist side by side. It is only a matter of deciding the best way to utilise the advantages of each. A school with a database of 16,000 ebooks may be futuristic, but can you really imagine a school without a library full of physical books?

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