“Close down the lending libraries and buy every citizen an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription,”Forbes contributor Tim Worstall wrote in July 2014, arguing that his native U.K. might thus save a lot of taxpayers’ money.
Given that the amount of new digital content produced in 2011 amounts to several million times the combined contents of every book ever written, it is easy to see why technology-fascinated experts and non-specialists alike have propagated the idea that libraries will soon fall prey to Google, Amazon, and other technological giants. However, public libraries around the globe are increasingly disproving hardcore pessimists like Worstall and others who find libraries irrelevant in the modern age. Simply put, these pessimists make a fundamental mistake: They look at libraries as reactionary spaces filled with nothing but shelves.
Another feature of the modern age is the expanding gulf between the information rich and the information poor. According to the Pew Research Center, adults with more education, higher household incomes, and more technologies connected to the Internet “are more likely to be participants in today’s educational ecosystem and to use information technology to navigate the world.”
The digital divide poses numerous challenges in affluent countries like the United States, as well as in poorer and smaller countries like Bulgaria (where I come from).
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“With all these technologies, libraries are becoming more important because the process of critically sifting out information and finding the right information will be growing more important,” explains Spaska Tarandova, director of the Global Libraries Foundation in Bulgaria. “The freedom of space requires that one has basic skills in evaluating which resource is reliable [and] which one is the product of someone’s imagination and speculation.”
Many people, particularly the young, have a fundamentally incorrect understanding of information literacy, says Elitsa Lozanova-Belcheva, a researcher and professor at Sofia University who has also worked as a librarian. Young people, she says, interpret information literacy as the ability to do a simple Google search, write and read emails, and chat with friends on Facebook. These and other activities are a long way from information literacy, she says, and that’s why most people should go through training to master more of the resources available online.
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Public libraries in Bulgaria and many other countries benefit the less privileged members of the communities outside the capital city. Lozanova-Belcheva agrees with Tarandova that libraries can help bridge the digital divide. She explains that this divide is still more serious when one takes into account ethnic minorities, such as the Roma in Bulgaria, and citizens with disabilities who face a greater risk of social exclusion. Properly maintained public libraries empower minority communities by providing access to modern technologies and the training to use these technologies for education- and work-related purposes.
In addition to information and computer literacy, libraries have discovered another promising niche: e-government.
“Over the past few years, libraries have come to serve as an intermediary between [citizens and authorities] through e-government services,” says Lozanova-Belcheva, explaining that some libraries in the U.S. have e-government librarians who help users navigate the sea of administrative and oftentimes incomprehensible language of modern-day bureaucracies. “Global trends show that users themselves prefer to use e-government services through the library because they trust this institution.”
E-government services, through which citizens can access administrative information and contact public institutions and officials from a distance, have now left the confines of American libraries and have popped up in their counterparts in Bulgaria.
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This spring, the regional library in the city of Varna, in cooperation with a local robotics school, organized a 3-D printing and modeling course. The library, which in March became the first public library in Bulgaria to introduce self-checkout, offered several three-hour editions of the course in the span of a few months. During the course, participants, who had to be at least 12 and bring their own laptops, learned to model 3-D objects such as a simple cube, a favorite character, or a practical tool for daily use.
For its part, the regional library in the town of Stara Zagora has launched a service unique for Bulgaria: bibliotherapy. Eleven certified consultants, who have completed training organized by the library and funded by the Global Libraries Foundation, consult library users and assist them in finding books that address some of their troubles. “With this service, readers receive special attention, enough time to share the problem that bothers them, conversation confidentiality, and a specially selected book,” explains Nadezhda Grueva, director of the Stara Zagora Regional Library.