The public library’s collection in a digital age

Media development and the expansion of the Internet pose a challenge to the public libraries’ traditional approach to their core service, i.e. the collection, and the digital age produces a veritable media glut. Is it, therefore, relevant for the public library to offer the public access to just part of the media? Or should the library in fact ensure access to all media for all citizens? The question is whether focusing on the collection and the media is the right point of departure for the public library’s future development?

When the Internet began to be used in earnest as a distribution platform for information and media, the development from collection to connections (from collection to servers) was being discussed in library circles, as well as the risk of library bypass, when the citizen no longer needed to visit the library to gain access to themedia.

The digitisation of books has not made tremendous progress in the Nordic countries, but in terms of music CDs and film DVDs most public libraries are aware of the impact that services like Spotify and Netflix have on the loan of physical media.

Compete with Spotify?

Such services may have considerable consequences for library usage, because a fall in loans of for example DVDs also means decrease in visiting figures (collecting and returning) and digital usage (search and order).

The Danish public libraries are therefore debating whether the libraries should have music and film services that compete with Spotify and Netflix – possibly with a special library profile.

The digital age

However, the public libraries cannot necessarily respond to the challenges from the digital development by supplementing the physical collection with a digital collection. The digital development produces some basic changes in the users’ relationship with the library.

According to an article in the Internet magazine Quartz, Netflix has with its latest strategy recognized that not only does the service compete with other TV channels and video services, but it also vies for the user’s interest in all other forms of leisure activities. According to this diagnosis, the challenge is not access to collections, but catching the user’s attention.

There is not yet free access to e-books, and the question remains whether ebooks will become a standard commodity with easy advertising-financed access for all citizens, as we know it from Spotify. Should that turn out to be the case, the risk of library bypass is a real one. The question then is, whether it is a problem that private actors take on the library’s task?

There are two approaches to answering that question. The collection-oriented approach that argues in favour of continued non-equal access to media, and that the library’s collection and the dissemination of it has a special public service quality.

For the citizens

Looking at it from this angle, choice of materials and the librarian’s mediatory expertise have a unique quality, which the public are keen to exploit, and collection building, as well as literature dissemination, are the public library’s most important tasks. This perspective is not to any great extent based on data or documentation of the users’ needs, exactly because focus is on the collection and its composition. Library bypass is a problem here, as the citizens do not get sufficient diversity and quality in their media consumption.

The other approach is based on the premise that the public library exists for the sake of the citizens and not the books. The Danish library act states that the objective of the public library is to further enlightenment, education and cultural activity. The collection is a means, albeit perhaps a little outdated, to attain this objective. It is important that the citizens read literature, but not necessarily from the library’s collection.

Here the library is trying to reach the objective – not by focusing on the collection – but on the citizens’ needs. Library bypass is a problem seen in this perspective, because an abundance of media does not in itself further enlightenment, education and cultural activity. Instead of focusing on the media development, the attention is directed at the fact that many citizens are poor readers, with a minimum of IT skills and find it difficult to live up to society’s increasing demands. The two approaches are illustrated in the figure below.

The assumption regarding the “collection-oriented library” is that the library’s collection is central to the citizen and most of the library’s resources and activities are therefore targeted the collection. The other approach has here got the designation “the citizen-oriented library”. The basic idea is that the library is battling for the citizen’s attention, and cannot expect the citizen to seek out the library.

The right question

In Denmark, the e-books challenge both perspectives, especially because they put the public libraries’ economy under pressure and prompt a tougher prioritization in relation to the collection and a rationing of the borrower’s access. It is a welcome opportunity to base discussions on the collection and the development of the public libraries largely on data about the citizens and their use of the library.

The important question is for example not: How to build a collection of ebooks? But: Is a historical growth in the volume of and access to information accompanied by a corresponding development in the degree of enlightenment and education? Are all citizens as enlightened, well-educated and culturally active as one might wish? If that is not the case, what can the public library do in order to encourage such a development?

Maybe the risk is not so much a library bypass, where the citizens desert the library, but rather a citizen bypass, where the libraries desert the citizens and perhaps particularly those citizens that need the library most.

Illustration: Jakob Heide Petersen

The article about Netflix, published in Quartz can be found at:

Head of Copenhagen Central Library and Library Technical Department Copenhagen Central Library