Libraries enjoying surge in popularity

As our on-screen life expands, people increasingly value the human contact and the “memory” capacity of libraries.

Ottawa Citizen, December 27, 2016

Berthiaume and McAvity: In a digital age, more people than ever are visiting libraries, archives and museums. We can learn from that

Dr. Guy Berthiaume is the Librarian and Archivist of Canada. Photographed at Library and Archives Canada Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2015.  (Julie Oliver / Ottawa Citizen)
Dr. Guy Berthiaume is the Librarian and Archivist of Canada. Exciting times lie ahead for ‘memory institutions,’ he says. Julie Oliver / Ottawa Citizen

These are exciting times for the library community in Canada’s capital and many other cities across the country.

And yet, the digital era often gives us the impression that memory itself is becoming obsolete. What is the use of memory institutions such as galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAMs)? Aren’t Google, Amazon, Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter and the mind-blowing speed of their algorithms good enough for “remembering”?

From time to time, seemingly logical questions come up in the media. Is it still appropriate to build new libraries, given the increased popularity of ebooks? Aren’t virtual museums the best response to the need to make culture accessible to people across the country and around the world? Aren’t the archives’ holdings all digitized and accessible on either their own platforms or those of Ancestry or Findmypast?

Yet, in fact, the patronage of GLAMs is increasing. The number of visits to public libraries in the United States increased by four per cent in the past year. The new Halifax Public Library received double the expected number of visitors in its first year (1.9 million compared with the 900,000 expected), and it is anticipated that the new Ottawa Central Library will welcome at least 1.6 million visitors each year. As for Canadian museums, they attract 62 million visitors per year, up 10 per cent from 2013.

This counter-intuitive data led the British Library to conclude:

“The more screen-based our lives, it seems, the greater the perceived value of real human encounters and physical artefacts: activity in each realm feeds interest in the other.”

With this paradox in mind, the Canadian Museums Association, the Canadian Commission for UNESCO and Library and Archives Canada hosted the Summit on the Value of Libraries, Archives and Museums earlier this month.

The summit brought together nearly 300 people and some 30 speakers, one-quarter of whom were international. Key points about memory institutions in the early 21st century were highlighted:

• Technology is a source of both challenges and opportunities. In terms of challenges, there is the need for financial resources necessary to acquire these technologies and to secure the human resources capable of getting the most out of them. In terms of opportunities, there is the democratization of culture that is the result of reaching citizens in their homes thanks to digital technology. There is also the increased use of GLAM spaces, following these virtual visits. Increased consultation of resources on the Web is increasing the appetite of the public to visit reading rooms and exhibition spaces.

• Memory institutions are playing new roles – welcoming newcomers, providing access to high-speed internet for the less fortunate, et cetera.

• Finally, the position of memory institutions in the creative ecosystem cannot be reduced to the functions of collecting and preserving works. They are also present at the beginning of the creative chain, providing inspiration and material to artists of all disciplines – not just authors and poets, but also digital artists, musicians, painters, directors.

Beyond sharing knowledge, the Ottawa Summit also revealed a unity among memory institutions, which had previously tended to focus on what makes them unique rather than looking for common denominators. In practice, the distinctions have been fading for years: for example, all major museums host archives, and even libraries.

The participants of the summit adopted the Ottawa Declaration as an expression of their commitment to increase collaboration, develop opportunities to engage citizens and expand access to their collections. A new day has risen for Canadian memory institutions!

Dr. Guy Berthiaume is Librarian and Archivist of Canada and John G. McAvity is Executive Director, Canadian Museums Association.

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