In these times of economic woe the public library is under threat. Currently there are 450 public libraries and mobile services facing closure in the UK. This has stirred writers, poets and readers into organising ‘read in’ protests to try and halt the cuts. Central government rationalise that declining numbers of users, cheap online books and the strength of the Internet as a source of public information means that many libraries are becoming obsolete. But how well does the public library stand up against the Internet as a place for learning, especially for open learning art and design students?
Research is a central activity to any art and design education; research as a detailed study of a subject, in which you set out to discover new information or to reach a new understanding of a specific area. To undertake this research you need to have questions that you want answering and you need somewhere to go to ask them.
Both the library and the Internet allow you to search for specific information; through the ubiquitous Google search (or more specialised book, image or scholar searches) or library catalogues. The internet will return with a breadth of material from which you will have to sort out what is relevant or of good quality, while the library will tend to give you fewer but more focused results. Having said that, the Internet does give you everything it possibly can on a given subject and with it access to a greater variety of forms of information through images, text, video and audio resources as well as information from international sources. The Internet is full of interesting stuff, far more than can be fitted into your local library, but the rub is that you have to wade through mountains of information to reach the answer to your research question.
The library relies on authors and librarians to decide in advance what to put into their books and onto their bookshelves, good for quality but not very inclusive. Wikipedia was developed as ‘the free Encyclopedia that anyone can edit’ and provides a format that encourages the construction of knowledge through multiple authors.
As social spaces and learning environments it’s hard to replace the physicality of a hushed library filled with readers and librarians focused on the same activity. The Internet does offer equivalent social spaces through social media, forums and networks, but unlike the occasional distraction of somebody talking in the library, the Internet is alive with visuals, links and activities to pull your attention away. Not all distance learning students have a library close at hand and not everyone has the Internet, which is why library’s free Internet access is so important. Libraries prioritise focus and depth of learning while the Internet offers breadth and variety; libraries can be quiet, the Internet can be loud.
Globally libraries, archives and research centres have been digitialising their material and making them accessible to a wider public. There’s a wealth of information that would have been much harder to access if not for the Internet. I don’t have to become a member of the British Library or take the train to London to get close to their manuscript collection or sought permission to view the archives now presented through VADS and Bridgeman Art Library. The wealth and quality of what’s online increases as more and more institutions open up their archives, however you need funding to make this happen. Are cuts in library funding going to have an adverse effect on what is offered on the Internet?
As a practitioner who has a broad range of interests I have always advocated a kind of research that broadens my understanding by finding gaps in my knowledge. I do this by taking random books from a bookshelf and reading them. Sooner or later links will be made between these new ideas and the research questions in mind. It’s a kind of browsing approach in which all knowledge is potentially valuable. Libraries are brilliant for this, you simply find a section you’ve never really explored and you spend some time delving into the books. By comparison it’s harder to jump into the internet at an unknown point because all searches are determined by keywords and links tend to step from one website to another along lines of common interest. Blogs often provide this randomness for the idle browser, for example the excellent BibliOdyssey blog that presents visual gems from the world’s digitalised libraries. Ironically I found BibliOdyssey via a book of their blog posts in a public library.
Making a comparison between the Internet and public libraries is perhaps a little unfair; the kinds of answers we get back from asking our research questions differs depending on where we ask them. The public library and the Internet both offer us something as learners. I think we need both of them.