[Surf’s Up, as published in the St. John's Telegram on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012.]
A little while ago, my wife got a notification from the library that a book she had wanted was ready for her to read. Instead of driving over to pick it up, though, she made a few taps on a screen and the book was hers to enjoy.
Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries
The eLibrary program of our public library system is a great addition to its services, and I’ve really been happy to see (or rather hear) ads that promote it. After all, advertising is really necessary to reach a new audience.
We learned about it first during a library visit, but as any regular patron will tell you, a great many people never set foot on a library floor. That means you need to get their attention through other means.
I’m a great believer in libraries. I love them, I love going there, I love wandering the stacks, and I love finding surprises. I also see them as essential to the meaning of community, and believe that reading stokes our economic engines.
However, I have to be honest and say that Newfoundland and Labrador does not truly value its libraries, and sometimes seems to neglect them. I’d love to see the library system truly transformed, and given the respect that libraries deserve, and that goes far beyond offering e-books.
But first, let’s take a look at what’s on offer with the digital library. That notification my wife got? That will sound familiar to anyone who’s used a library regularly, and used to get a call or a notice in the mail (and more recently an email). Getting the book is simple enough: you need to log in, add the title to your cart and check it out. It’s available for precisely two weeks.
If it’s just a digital copy, why wait at all for it to be become available? That’s because the library pays for digital licences for the books in this program. If it has, say, two licences for one book, only two people can have it on their Kindle or Kobo or tablet at any one time.
I have yet to use the service with my own card, by the way. As digital-minded as I am, I still actually read my books the old-fashioned way. I am planning to get my own tablet soon, in part because reading news headlines on a phone can be a headache-prompter, and in part because I’ve seen how my wife (a nonstop reader, like me) has really enjoyed having an iPad.
What I’ve seen in the eLibrary selection is not bad. A lot of popular fiction, a smattering of material in various other sections, some surprises. And don’t forget, we’re still in early days. I hope that the variety expands continually.
A single patron can have three e-books out on loan at a time, and after two weeks, your licence expires, which means tapping on the icon won’t work. The upside is that there are no late fines! You can renew in a jiffy, though, should there be no one waiting for the book.
This is a convenient system, and I imagine it’s very welcome news for people who don’t live at all close to a library. The geographic gap has been made considerably shorter.
But the eLibrary is not enough to transform our libraries into the institutions they ought to be.
My local library happens to be the A.C. Hunter, the flagship in the province’s system, and a place I’ve been going since I was a little kid. Our family has made a habit lately of “library night,” and every two weeks (sometimes three) we trek over, split up and then regroup with what we’d like to borrow.
Some nights, there are readings and activity. More often, though, the place feels deserted, and it’s such a shame. Compare that to the buzz and the crowd at the same time at Chapter’s, around the corner on Kenmount Road. It says something – quite a lot, actually – that many people prefer to hang out and relax at a place where books cost money than where they are free.
I don’t like the physical space of the Hunter. It’s not nearly big enough, and is constricted by how it’s wedged into the Arts and Culture Centre. The fiction stacks bore me; I see the same old (decades-old, in many cases) hardcovers every time.
We need to rethink all our libraries, top to bottom … with the exception of Memorial University’s library, which has a first-rate and publicly overlooked collection. Very few of the schools in the province have a dedicated, full-time librarian; the threshold for such a position is several hundred more students than the typical school actually has.
As kids grow up, the public libraries are hardly designed to be places where they would want to go.
Simply stated, the public libraries are not particularly welcoming places. The librarians themselves? They’re great, and I always find them helpful. But the spaces are cold and institutional, and feel like they’re meant for storage, not active use. Believe me, it takes more than a couch to get that feeling across.
Nor do we make them as accessible as they could be. They are not funded to be open seven days a week, let alone six. It pains me that the libraries aren’t open on Sundays – and don’t get me started about summer hours.
Yes, the answer involves money (we spend far too little per capita on the knowledge sector of the economy), but it’s more than that. It means some visionary thinking has to come from the owners of the libraries, and that includes politicians and consumers alike. That’s no easy nut to crack.
But think about what libraries could be. As my wife puts it, “libraries should be our city squares,” where people simply want to go, regardless of whether they’re planning to borrow anything or not.
The eLibrary is a great step toward connecting the public with a good resource in our midst. But let’s work at making it a great resource, once that involves bricks and mortar as much as bits and bytes.
John Gushue is an editor with CBC News in St. John’s. Twitter: @johngushue