Libraries are crucial to our digital future

Photo by New Jersey Library Association, CC licensed
Photo by New Jersey Library Association, CC licensed

Are you still thinking the future of libraries is all about providing internet access and access to ever-bigger book selections? Think again.

Lynne Brindley, in a Guardian Response column this week, made me realise they present a relatively untapped opportunity to improve reading, commitment to learning and digital inclusion within communities. I’ve lifted the title of her piece for this post because it’s a message I think needs repeated.

Public libraries will adapt and survive because they have a crucial role to play both in fostering reading and commitment to learning, and in delivering vital digital skills and digital inclusion in an increasingly digital Britain.

I’d fallen into my own favourite trap by seeing the potential of technology in libraries for doing existing things more effectively – finding books, researching, accessing information – but hadn’t fully appreciated how powerful the combination of community libraries and technology could be before reading this piece. The point I’d missed is the opportunities they enable, such as building online skills.

In fact most people have broadband access via our public library network, which has a vital role to play in fostering digital inclusion by building the online skills of users both young and old. Libraries are a safe, neutral, public space with internet access and skilled staff able to offer information and advice about getting online. They also act as a portal to a wide range of other services – particularly in these economically difficult times.

In our public library service we have a great infrastructure on which to build a digital Britain. Through this we can increase lifelong learning, digital literacy and digital inclusion by bridging the gap between online information and services and the millions who are currently “nonline”.

From this perspective, safeguarding our existing library system is just the first step; we need to find ways to allow its important new role to develop.