Why libraries that digitize and expedite the availability of new content will not die
New York Public Library offers more than just books—members can also stream music and classic movies
When I was young, going to the British Council Library (BCL) with my father used to be an outing. Till my early 20s, we would often meet up in the library near Nariman Point, choose our books, get a snack in a restaurant and wait in the bus queue to go home.
The library was also a reading room for me, a space I didn’t have at home. And it was air-conditioned. I would go there to look at foreign magazines and newspapers. Over the years my visits to the library became less frequent. My father, however, continued to go BCL, and so does my wife even now. “Some books you buy, some you borrow,” she says.
The question, however, that comes to mind is, in a world that is becoming increasingly digital, do libraries have a future? The short answer would be: If books have a future, then so do libraries. And libraries are more than just about books. They are safe public spaces where you meet, sit, read and work. Walk into BCL in Delhi and see how crowded it is: young people doing reference work, taking notes from books. Even in the days of internet, a good library is a priceless resource.
Sadly, in many parts of the world libraries are struggling for funds; but there are also many enlightened nations where governments are spending millions on new libraries, many of which are designed by world-renowned architects.
Libraries are adapting to new technology to meet the needs of the increasing number of people who access reading material on their digital devices. A few days ago, my wife came home from BCL in Delhi and said, “Guess what? We can now borrow e-books and read on Kindle.” But there is more to digitalization than e-books.
The New York Public Library (NYPL) is a good example of how large libraries are continuing to exist while creating innovative platforms for the future. A magnificent, old- world building right in the middle of Manhattan, its main reading room, a very large hall, has huge arched windows, chandeliers and a painted ceiling.
The library has 88 branches across New York City. At any time of the day you’ll find hundreds of people sitting on its steps, taking selfies with the two lion statues nicknamed Patience and Fortitude, or in the large park behind it. It’s hard to believe that a 100-year-old library, a glorious building (outside as well as inside), is also a major tourist attraction.
NYPL started e-book lending 10 years ago and, in August this year, it went a step further and launched books on Instagram, the photo-sharing app. Called “Insta Novels”, the books are specially designed to be read on the popular social media platform that has nearly a billion monthly users. The first book in the series was Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
To access, go to the NYPL’s Instagram account (@nypl) and click Part 1 of Alice’s Adventures (the book is in two parts). It begins with the animation of a girl in a blue dress walking towards a hole. And then the book opens. The experience is similar to reading on any other e-book reader. Even on the small screen of my iPhone, the text is clear and pages turn smoothly.
Alice was the first in the NYPL series of putting classics on Instagram, followed by The Yellow Wallpaper, a short story by American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Unlike Alice, The Yellow Wallpaper was released in one part. Next in the series is Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
NYPL’s Instagram account attracted 93,000 more followers after the launch of Alice. “We want people to understand that libraries aren’t just those brick-and-mortar places full of dusty books,” said Christopher Platt of NYPL.
The library offers more than just books—members can also stream music and classic movies from its collection. And purely as an aside, those looking for jobs can also borrow a tie, a briefcase or a handbag from its collection for three weeks.
Take the other big American library—the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Nearly two million people visited the library in 2017. It has now launched a five-year digital initiative to “throw open the treasure chest” and “make public access to its vast collections easier”. Over the next five years, “the library plans to continue its aggressive digitization program and expedite the availability of new content on the web”.
These are just two examples of how good libraries are innovating and transforming themselves to stay relevant in the age of the internet and e-readers. What is interesting is that even though the medium of reading may have changed, we still continue to read literary classics that were written a 100 years ago.
Shekhar Bhatia is a science buff and a geek at heart.
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