Why does a library need staff and a building? Surely the money saved by operating a centrally-run ‘virtual library’ with online services makes it worthy of consideration?
There are lots of reasons why libraries need buildings. E-books and online library services are brilliant, because they mean many users can access materials in a way that really suits them, whenever they like. But many is not all. It’s always important to bear in mind that not everyone has reliable, unmoderated computer access or the skills and confidence to use information technology effectively. E-books come in proprietary formats which means that you may own a particular device and the material you want might only be compatible with an entirely different one. Not a problem with old-school books, so much.
Lots more people value their weekly trip to the library and enjoy the opportunities it offers for them or their children to meet others. They like taking part in activities and they may have queries that are hard to articulate – for which the answer is talking to someone face to face and sorting out with them what it is they need to find out. Also libraries have immense value as community hubs – the places where you can go for exhibitions (or to enjoy seeing your own work on show), author talks, reading or writing groups, public meetings, club and society gatherings, children’s activities, information events, MPs’ or councillors’ surgeries, classes – and a thousand other things happening up and down the UK right now.
Then there’s the sheer, glorious serendipity of browsing along the shelves and finding books you’ve never dreamed existed and would never have thought to read had you not come across them pretty much by chance. This is one of the great experiences you get from visiting libraries – leaving with a bag full of unexpected treasures, and then enjoying the lengthy pleasures of reading them in your own good time.
We’ve said elsewhere on this site that one of the most valuable things that libraries do is to contribute to our dwindling store of town-centre public space, one of the key places where our communities are built – and long may they continue to do so.