Wednesday, 28 May 2014
The Footpath Library
The shift from print-only reading to apps, e-books, i-pads, and online overload has caused a u-turn in our experience of reading itself. Sit in a peak-hour train some morning and we see in microcosm the reading habits of contemporary society. Maybe a few commuters read the morning paper picked up at the station kiosk. A decent number read hardcovers or paperbacks of differing standards, while a few are immersed in downloaded texts. A couple of students read their spiral-bound class notes. Quite a proportion of the carriage are busy tapping apps, while the rest read the graffiti going by outside the windows, if they are reading at all. The trees are beautiful on an autumn morning.
Few people are more attentive to the changing nature of reading habits than librarians. This is not because of any threat to their livelihood, but because it is their job to know what readers want and how they want that reading delivered. Expectation is a standard, if not usually quantifiable, measure by which librarians order and process reading matter for their collections. Nowadays a collection is not just what is in the building but what is out there in the multiverse of the world wide web.
The physical fact of the printed book remains a constant, whatever the urban myths about digital replacing print. Most librarians are beyond such simplistic views. After all, it was library science that helped propel the internet revolution, with a librarians’ need for proper management of all written resources. We live today in a world in which online and ink line necessarily co-exist. Despite the rumours, there will never be a time when everything in print has a digital twin. The primary human sense of vision is irrefutable: we will read whatever is put in front of us, whenever the mood suits.
Some readers do not have such access to books. Some readers cannot afford to catch a train. They will not be found downloading the sequel to their favourite thriller, or indulging in facebook chitchat, for the simple reason that they don’t have the device. I am talking in particular of people who live on the streets. Odd as it may seem to some, they are the very people who front up at libraries in the morning, as much for the warmth and comfort as for the books. But even then, they are often the ones who are not members of any library, because they cannot pay the fee and do not have an address a librarian can enter on the database. But there is an answer.
Australia leads the world in its awareness of the reading needs of the homeless and disadvantaged members of our society. This may be related to the fact that Australia is one of the best-read countries per capita in the world, where more people spend time reading books than going to sporting events. Reading is a national pastime.