As the Digital Divide vanishes, and the global community becomes more pronounced, the Library of the digital age can preserve the local community while serving it.
In his essay, Community Networks: Building a New Participatory Medium, Doug Schuler speculates
"the benefits of the computer revolution are unevenly distributed and the lack of access to communication technology contributes to the widening gulf between socioeconomic classes."(517)
Closing the gulf mentioned above, involves “restructuring the telecommunications sectors in each nation so that broadband’s benefits can flow to the masses, not just the elite urban sectors of emerging markets,” says the Digital Divide Institute. The advantage Schuler was speaking of is access to an ever growing library of information, enabled by widespread access to information technology: the internet.
Almost two decades have passed since Schuler expressed those concerns. In that time, much has changed. In fact, facethefacts.org estimated in 2007 that 80% of the US population has some sort of Internet access. This serves as evidence that the divide is closing. Meanwhile, however, society spends less time in the physical location of the Library, and more time at the digital library. For example, The Concord Public Library saw a 12% decline in visits from September 2008 to 2009. This phenomenon leads communities to question: What is the library here for and what is its role in the digital age? Benjamin Franklin, in his autobiography described a library as:
Replacing the word “book” in Franklin’s quote, with information; it is conceivable that the library includes the internet. Virtual content often originates from the physical shelves, so the internet is an extension of the library. On the other hand, the current library extends its knowledge base by networking via the internet; and Libraries validate content on the internet. The two cannot exist apart and still expect to serve the digital society.
With Most people online and collectively sharing information, the issue of access to information technology will soon be solved. The global community will then benefit from access to a global library at its fingertips. As the global library and community grow, the temptation to neglect the local library and community will be powerful. In his book, Globalization: The Human Consequences, Zygmont Bauman writes,
“While global means being capable of directing events, being local means exclusion and isolation from the mainstream of global life.”
According to Bauman’s philosophy, being a member of the global community, poses an unavoidable threat to the local community. If his theory holds true, the threat to the local community will increase in proportion to the growth of the Global community.
In 1994, Schuler had already observed “the strands of community life are unraveling” citing the increase in violence, alcohol and drug abuse, and corruption in government. If those maladies are consequences of erosion of the local community, something must be done to foster local community involvement while still providing a portal to the global one. It is significant to keep an active Global portal to minimize feelings of exclusion and isolation from the global community of which Bauman speaks. The library of the digital age has the opportunity to serve just that purpose and is poising itself accordingly.
According to a 2013 survey released by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, access to free technology, the ability to borrow books, and the availability of reference librarians are the key services now offered by public libraries. Although these services provide a good foundation, more adaptations are on the horizon to serve members of the global community; while encouraging local involvement. The American Library Association, is using information obtained from the survey to gauge what is important to communities. Some of the suggestions were:
- Online research services to pose questions and get answers from librarians (73%).
- Access to technology “petting zoos” to try out new devices(69%)
- “Amazon”-style customized book/audio/video recommendation schemes that are based on patrons’ prior library behavior (64%).
- Apps-based access to library materials and programs (63%).
- “Redbox”-style lending machines or kiosks located throughout the community where people can check out books, movies, or music without having to go to the library itself (63%).
- GPS navigation apps to help patrons find local materials inside library buildings (62%).
ALA President, Maureen Sullivan remarked,
“The good news is that our nation’s libraries embrace this broad vision of meeting community needs in person and online and already are working to implement it”