OCTOBER 24 — Here’s an open secret any visitor to any library inside a Malaysian university or college will know within five minutes of entering it: People don’t read books in these places anymore.
Today, a library is anything but a library.
A library nowadays is where students go to “chill”, to spend three hours checking their WhatsApps or posting photos on Instagram. Assuming the chairs or sofas are comfy enough, it’s also where students (and lecturers) go to catch some shut eye.
If the campus has a paucity of space for students to hang about before or after class, the library is where most of them will be if only to kill time.
For many college campuses, the library is also usually attached to the computer labs. So it’s also a chance for students who didn’t bring their laptops to do some online work. Put another way, a library is in a sense a huge computer lab which also happens to have bookshelves.
Another purpose of a college library today is to provide meeting cum discussion space. In many universities, students reserve consultation rooms so half a dozen or so people can brainstorm ideas for an upcoming assignment or society event.
Finally, nowadays library spaces can be used for events, talks, mini-shows, forums, etc.
The point is a library today is no longer the place where people “go to borrow and read books”. Not sure if that’s good or bad news.
Just like a phone today is hardly a device we use to “make and receive phone calls” any more and Popular is less a bookshop than a stationery shop which happens to sell books, perhaps we can celebrate the breaking up and expanding of this concept we’ve labelled the “library” for decades.
As times change, purposes and definitions change too.
But it’s also possible that these changes go too far.
How do we repurpose a library?
We all know that physical books are on the decline. This phenomenon alone renders many a librarian very free or redundant.
But what if e-books and e-articles are also being read less and less frequently? What if reading simply isn’t what it used to be? Wouldn’t this eat at the very heart of that entity we know as a library?
A superficial “solution” here would be for libraries to be repurposed as media centres, which is sort of what they’ve also been all this time.
However, what if 90 per cent of what the media students want can be accessed online via their devices? What then? What role would the library continue to play other than being a) a custodian of e-databases (which will require way smaller physical spaces) and b) a physical repository of materials which somehow cannot be downloaded or viewed online, surely a set of items which are decreasing in number every week?
I mean, what can a library or librarians do better than everybody else? My first guess is that they should be the go-to people for the organisation, sorting and access of academic knowledge.
Extend this a little and you could even say that libraries should be labs or incubators to develop academic research and writing.
We’re way beyond books and shelves here.
I don’t have many answers here but if university libraries aren’t going to go the way of bookshops and standalone cinemas, librarians and educators will have to think of something fast.
Lest the library building simply becomes, uh, Block L?
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.