On the importance of libraries

Posted: January 3rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: education, Estonia, thoughts | No Comments »

The one institution that I have most respect towards is the library. It is a symbol for the progress we, humans, have made. Libraries have always played an important role in education, democracy and freedom. The libraries must be free and independent in order to fulfil best the needs of the society they serve. It scares me whenever their independence is threatened, either by way of censorship or cutting funding or by setting limits on which publications the library can buy with state funding.

In Estonia from this year, public libraries (people’s libraries) have to spend 50% of their state funding on specific Estonian publications, as directed by the state. This has been the result of a minor culture war in Estonia waged by our Minister of Culture Rein Lang against books written by Barbara Cartland and the like. These state mandated, so-called cultural publications, are prizewinners, somewhat elitist works who are rarely read otherwise. Although I can detect some sort of a good intention in this action, I cannot in any way support or agree with it. Even though it is not full-blown Orwellian censorship, it still stems from the notion that the people are dumb and the government is smart and people need to be told what to read. It also means that especially those people in rural areas who had grown accustomed to reading recent bestsellers are no longer able to do so, which is a shame.

It is early to tell what the impact of this decision is, but my guess is that people will use libraries less, because books that they want to read are not there. With dwindling numbers come more budget cuts and reduction of numbers of libraries and soon we might end up with a situation in which this important network of local libraries is no longer there, depriving people of an important service. This means also that fewer children go to the library and appreciate its value.

If the government really wanted to help libraries to perform better, then they should encourage the transfer to and accessibility of digital publications. They should provide better tools for digitizing existing content and create a legal framework where this can be accessible. This should not only be limited to books or periodicals, but also music, films and other important arts. The information society has provided us with incredible possibilities for enjoyment of culture, all kinds of culture, by everyone, but sadly much of the content is locked away due to draconian and outdated intellectual property laws (I know first hand what are the expenses involved in accessing academic journals). In order to make libraries more relevant they could be made into zones where all this culture and education is accessible by all for free.

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