MacManus: A digital future for libraries
Technology columnist Richard MacManus writes an ode to libraries, and looks at their future in a digital age.
Earlier this month Christchurch’s flash new central library, Tūranga, was opened. As well as being housed in a beautiful, newly constructed five-storey building, Tūranga has been outfitted with the latest in technology. Christchurch citizens will have access to a production studio featuring 3D printers and a laser cutter, an audio and video studio including a digital mixing desk and a green screen wall, VR headsets, robotics, and more.
The centrepiece of Tūranga is a giant, seven-metre touchscreen called the Discovery Wall. Built at a cost of $1.245 million, the wall features a “touch-sensitive, digital representation of Christchurch” and includes 1000 current and historical images.
The Discovery Wall is like a public monument to the digital era of libraries – an era where information is available to all, with a mere swipe of your fingertips on a touchscreen.
Remember when libraries were academic, dusty and quiet places? Visiting a library in the old days meant thumbing through index file catalogues, blowing the cobwebs off stack books, and lowering your head in shame when a librarian shushed you.
Not any more. Libraries these days are accessible, fun, and increasingly digital.
My aunt, Lis Roche Simon, used to be a librarian at Christchurch central library (I may have cadged her library card a few times when I visited Christchurch as a kid). She recently visited Tūranga and raved about it. “What really struck me was the number of families there,” she told me. “There are four or five big pits of Lego, and so many children looking happy!”
Putting on her librarian hat for a moment, she added that Tūranga is “providing so many opportunities for various ages and communities, and really expanding on the concept of information literacy.”
While it’s true the concept of literacy is being expanded in this era, let’s not forget the real centrepiece of a library is still the book collection. Tūranga has 160,000 paper books. Yet even books are being digitized at an ever-growing rate. Many (if not most) New Zealand libraries now offer ebooks, audio books, magazines and newspapers through an array of apps and specialist websites.
A company called OverDrive, based in Cleveland, Ohio, is the dominant global supplier of ebooks and audio books to libraries. Wellington City Libraries, for instance, has a decent catalogue of ebooks and audio books that it makes available via OverDrive.
Until recently, I didn’t make much use of OverDrive. I'd found the app clunky and not very user friendly. Compared to the commercial apps I typically use to read ebooks and listen to audio books (Kindle, iBooks and Audible), the OverDrive app seemed like the digital equivalent of an old, run-down library.
But then last year, OverDrive released a new, funkier app called Libby. This app is a joy to use – it makes it easier to search for and borrow books, and the reading and listening experience now matches Kindle and Audible.
There’s still room for improvement for libraries wanting to provide digital content. My biggest issue is the ongoing confusion about which apps or websites to use. As noted, OverDrive has two different apps (both require a separate signup and login), and sometimes libraries offer alternative services. Wellington City Libraries, for instance, also has a service called BorrowBox - billed as “Australia’s leading provider of eBook and eAudio titles for adults and children."
When I recently looked again at the ebook and audio book options at Wellington City Libraries, it wasn’t immediately obvious which of the three apps I should use. It was only through trial and error that I eventually settled on Libby.
All the Library's apps
Then there’s all the apps and sites for other digital content. There’s a separate app or website for magazines (RBdigital, previously Zinio for Libraries), newspapers (PressReader), comics (ComicsPlus), education resources (Lynda.com), and other types of content.
In fact there’s a whole page of apps on the Wellington City Libraries website, including its own app WCL Mini – which you can use to check your card or renew items, but not to consume content.
Even streaming is available via libraries now. My other local library, Hutt City Libraries, offers access to an Australian streaming service called Bermafilm. It has over 500 independent documentaries and films, and can be accessed for free by Hutt City library members.
It’s great to have so much digital content available through libraries, but the sheer number of different apps and websites can be overwhelming for library users – especially when you have to register and log in to each app or website separately. In my own experience, each service also has its quirks. In an ideal world, you would have just one app for all types of library content.
Then again, if there was such an all-you-can-eat app, odds are it would be owned by Amazon! So perhaps I should be careful what I wish for.
The Library as a place
Despite the smorgasboard of digital content available now in modern libraries, I still find myself visiting the library in person nearly every week. I’m as big a digital tech enthusiast as you will find, but it’s the library as place and the primacy of paper books that keeps me coming back.
The serendipity of libraries is perhaps my favourite feature. There’s no digital equivalent of walking down a random shelf of books and discovering a book you never knew you were looking for. Okay, so Google has a “I’m feeling lucky” option for its search engine, but the results are nearly always terrible (I just typed “Rembrandt” into Google and clicked said button, and was taken to a men's suit store of the same name).
I also love libraries as a gathering place for anyone and everyone in the community. It’s important to note that access to computers and the Internet is not something everyone can take for granted at home, or even school. Libraries give everyone free access to these critical technologies for our era – and in the case of Tūranga, much more sophisticated technology as well.
Tūranga is an excellent example of what a modern library should be, since it embraces both the physical and digital worlds. I can’t wait to visit.