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An installment of CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup, broadcast live from the University of Waterloo’s Stratford campus on Sunday, Sept. 28, was meant to stir the debate as to the future of libraries and print in the age of Google.
“Times are changing,” said host Peter Mansbridge during his introduction. “Is the answer to build newer libraries? Or to find new ways to get people the information they need?”
But instead of instigating a debate, the segment proved there’s really no debate at all. The vast majority of panelists and audience members, as well as callers from across Canada, felt strongly that libraries still play a worthy role in today’s social fabric, and that the death of print is a long way off.
Christine McWebb, director of academic programs at the Stratford campus, was one of two panelists.
Stratford’s campus is notable for not having a library on site, although McWebb clarified that, beginning this year, students now have access to physical books via interlibrary loans within the University of Waterloo system.
She maintained libraries are still central aspects of society, although she thinks the role they play is changing from the mere acquisition of physical resources to a greater focus on curation and quality control. The huge influx of information made available through the Internet makes it difficult to discern what’s reputable and what’s not. McWebb says that librarians and curators “…make sure what’s available is of quality.”
Ken Roberts, the other panelist in Sunday’s discussion, is a member of the Royal Society of Canada’s Expert Panel on the Future of Libraries and Archives in Canada. The former chief librarian of the Hamilton Public Library, Roberts is also an author of children’s books.
“I would argue this entire building is a library,” he said, adding that, with the dawn of the Internet, the community itself is becoming a hub of information.
“Canada has some of the best libraries in the world,” he noted, pointing out an international study that ranked Canada quite high in terms of the quality of its institutions.
However, he stressed that most of those libraries included in the study were located in urban centres, and that rural libraries often get overlooked.
Many participants in the conversation, though positive, noted issues they thought needed addressing. CEO of Stratford Public Library, Julia Merritt, said her library sees an average of 500 people through the door on a given day, but its attendance numbers are still limited by parking and accessibility issues.
“I’m sure Mayor Dan Mathieson is listening,” quipped Mansbridge.
Karen, who called in her response, asked listeners not to forget those people who can’t afford $10.99 for an ebook. If libraries were to fade away, she estimated 30 per cent of the population would no longer have access to reading materials.
Another caller thought a librarian retiring on a pension of $250,000 was an example of overcompensation, considering most people who frequent a library are there to use the computers.
Ian Milligan, a U of W professor, stressed that digital information is far from timeless.
“Opening a file from 10 years ago is difficult,” he said. “From 20 years ago is impossible.”
Milligan’s work in digital preservation has been hindered by the advancement of technology, so that research done on web culture from pre-1996 is often done using print materials.
Roberts agreed. “Web resources are not being archived as they should be in Canada,” he said.
McWebb added that we’re perhaps too euphoric about our tech, and that few people retain what they consume.
“It’s all streaming right now. We don’t even download anymore!”
Mansbridge concurred, saying the CBC has lost a great deal of archival programming due to a lack of digital preservation.
“I know because they were decades old, and I was on them,” he laughed.
Leslie, a caller from Halifax, decried how he can’t access out-of-print books only available via university libraries as he’s not a student. This led to a expansive conversation regarding licensing and the control of information.
Annie Bélanger, a librarian at U of W, said electronic materials her department had paid for are disappearing because their licenses have expired.
“If it were in print, we would never lose it… unless somebody stole it,” she said.
An email sent to the discussion brought up Google’s increasing control over information, as well as its status as a for-profit corporation and all that bodes for the future of access.
“Google is a company,” added McWebb. “We’re looking at the commercialization of information.”
She said that selectively making certain information accessible is a dangerous game. As an example, she pointed out that 55.7 per cent on content currently available on the Internet is in English.
“There’s a company that will decide what’s available and what’s not available. So scholars and writers not writing in English, will they be made available?”
Caller Wayne, who teaches at a First Nations school two hours north of Kenora, said a good portion of the population, especially those in the north, can’t access high speed Internet.
“The only Internet is the satellite uplink at my school, and that’s dodgy at best,” he said. “The money, will, and technology just isn’t there to reach northern communities. It just isn’t feasible to expect everyone in this country will enjoy the same level of connection.”
Many callers contacted the show to talk about ways their libraries were showing innovation, discovering new ways to service their communities. Anita, from Sydney, said her library had a Paws to Read program where young children read out loud to dogs. Ben, from Whitehorse, said he was part of a tool library that made items like laser cutters and 3D printers available to the public. John, from Montreal, president of a privately funded library in operation since 1885, reports his organization began creating “mini-biblios,” or stacks of books made available in numerous public spaces, in order to get people reading.
Towards the end of the program, Mansbridge announced that the event was trending on Twitter, meaning tweets linked to the event via hashtag were among the most popular on the net at that time.
Some of the most poignant moments came from Stratford campus students. Sara Mercier said she valued libraries as commercial-free safe zones. Graduate Yifei Zhao received a round of applause when he said technology provides us with great tools, “but we always need the power of a brain to make it good.”
Deanna Sim encapsulated the day’s discussion nicely using a quote from writer Caitlin Moran, saying libraries “are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen...
“A mall- the shops- are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier,” she read. “But a library is where the wealthy’s taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead.”