Libraries in the Digital Age

15. 3. 2017

What should be the role of libraries in a society where, on the one hand, many people carry access to worldwide knowledge in their pockets and, on the other hand, there are communities suffering not only from social but also information exclusion? Libraries seek answers to that around the world, including the Czech Republic. And they look for inspiration for example in the results of the dialogue facilitated in the USA by the Aspen Institute.

The Idea of a Library

“Thursday was also the day Jacques and Pierre would go to the public library. […] The two gluttons were devouring randomly everything, consuming thus the best together with the worst. […] Actually the contents of these books mattered little. What did matter was what they first felt when they went into the library, where they would see not the walls of black books but multiplying horizons and expanses that, as soon as they crossed the doorstep, would take them away from the cramped life of the neighborhood.”

Albert Camus: The First Man

Each person has their own idea of “their” library. Some people think of an opulent Baroque hall full of leather-bound books, others shiver at the idea of a convent library with a scriptorium and are warmed by the image of a cozy chateau library with a deep armchair and the smell of an abandoned cigar. Most people in their thirties and forties will remember spines of books looking down from the wall unit where “forbidden” books were at the very top so that a young reader would not reach them. However, there are quite a few people who—at the mention of the word “library”—imagine a local town or municipal library providing a sufficient amount of interesting impulses to what comes to a person’s mind. Including the personality of a librarian…

Irrespective of the image, the function is the same—a library is and has always been a place where a reader can find a book for pleasure or study, ideally in combination with a pleasant place where the book can be read/studied and with a skillful librarian guiding the reader’s way towards the text. Access to information has recently changed radically mainly thanks to the Internet being a gateway to unlimited and unsorted resources of information. It is therefore not unique that librarians keep hearing an opinion from part of the general public as well as from some politicians that libraries are no longer needed as “everything is on the Internet anyway.” So, what is the future of libraries and what can these traditional institutions offer to the digital age society?

The Dialogue on Public Libraries

“The Dialogue on Public Libraries is a multistakeholder forum that brings together library professionals, policymakers, technology experts, philanthropists, educators, and civic leaders to explore, develop, and champion new ways of thinking about public libraries.”
Rising to the Challenge, Aspen Institute

There are many types of libraries, from national through special, university to regional, municipal or town libraries. Each of them has a slightly different function and each of them and/or all of them together should think about their future. The most discussed topic is the necessity of libraries serving the general public as they are still perceived as book rental stores or access points to the public Internet. Our days do not favor lending printed texts and many people carry the Internet in their pockets thanks to the growing popularity of smart devices. What do we do with that?

Paths to redefining the role of libraries could differ but their objective is similar—a library as a partner for communities and individuals seeking their own place in today’s quickly changing society. Some libraries try to do it by changing their names (e.g. some of the London libraries have transformed into the “idea stores”). The author of this article deems more beneficial to use an approach that includes a society-wide dialogue leading to redefining the role as well as anchoring the position of libraries within the society, including certain assurance of funding. This is the path taken in the USA where a dialogue on public libraries took place thanks to the Aspen Institute and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The dialogue resulted in a freely accessible document Rising to the Challenge which is also available in Czech translation under the title Přijímání výzvy.

What, according to the “Aspen dialogue,” can libraries offer to a society groaning under excess information and social turbulences?


A public library is a center fostering new relationships within the community. It connects initiatives, clubs, and societies with individuals thus creating a living local social network.


A public library is a welcoming space for a wide range of purposes—reading, communicating, learning, playing, meeting, and getting business done. Its design and furnishing is adapted to easy access to the contents as well to activities listed above. A library is a public space without barriers strengthening links within the community and facilitating neighborhood revitalization.


A public library is user-centered. It provides opportunities for individuals and the community to gain access to a variety of tools and resources with which they discover and create as well as share the created knowledge. Also it is a “third place” facilitating people operating individually and in groups.

Questions and found answers are of course a big inspiration for Czech libraries facing a similar challenge…

Sayings about Czech libraries

“One of the features of today’s society is that the public space is disappearing, mainly in cities. And a library is a public space par excellence, moreover a safe and refined space. Our task is to maintain such space so that people across generations and social strata can meet there.”
Tomáš Řehák, Director of the Municipal Library of Prague

What is the direction of Czech libraries? We hope that the right one. How do we know it? We follow what is going on elsewhere. Concept documents and strategies of libraries abroad are publicly accessible and they serve as inspiration when drafting Czech concept materials. A world-wide trend is the anticipated constant decline in lending services and transformation of libraries into a public space offering place for education, learning, leisure time and facilitating creativity.

Development trends of the Czech librarianship are described in the Government’s document Concept of Czech Libraries Development, reflecting world-wide trends while taking into account specifics of the Czech system of libraries as well as topics relevant today for Czech libraries.

“Together, we develop libraries as an offer of services and information resources and of an open space for education, culture, and personal development.”
Vision of Czech libraries until 2020

The document contains seven priorities embodying the main topics the Czech libraries should focus on in the following five years. While reflecting the current situation in the Czech librarianship, they include not only services rendered to the general public, but also topics related to library functions (technical, scientific, or specialized in particular) ensuing from their role of memory institutions.

A challenge for libraries is represented by a shift in the method of publishing information and making it accessible in the virtual environment and the libraries’ effort to archive those resources, too. At the same time, it is necessary to keep preserving old prints via digitization and making the digitized materials available to users in the most user-friendly way. Of course, the topic is closely linked to copyright and to discussions with publishers and authors about the right of libraries to receive an edeposit copy or about the terms of accessibility of a long tail of book production, or making e-books available for study purposes on the spot, i.e. directly in a library.

Other tasks arising from the above are related to transformation of libraries as physical places both in terms of their furnishings (design, comfortable furniture serving the purpose of the space) and to development of an offer of further services requiring certain space variability. As an example we can use time-limited presentations of new technologies, from robots to 3D printers, co-working and study places designed for individuals and groups. In recent years much attention has been paid to on-line presentations of libraries with the effort resulting in development of the portal. The shared portal will offer a central search function in Czech libraries’ resources, a single point of access to a reader’s accounts (when multiple libraries are used by a reader) and provide other related services, such as submitting a query using the Ptejte se knihovny (Ask Your Library) service, choosing from a list of events taking place in libraries, or searching for a library based on location and focus of its resources.

The system of libraries in the Czech Republic consists of the National Library and a network of 6,000 town and municipal libraries. Out of that number, 14 libraries perform the statutory function of a regional library and at the same time they may be scientific libraries. The system of Czech libraries features also university and museum libraries. Some of them have a special focus, such as the National Medical Library or the National Library of Technology. Libraries strive to be used by as many people as possible, regardless of the type of library chosen. Therefore, marketing of libraries and their services remains a conceptual priority.

The Czech librarianship will also focus on education of librarians who should be well acquainted not only with their area of expertise, but also with the society and technology.

One may deduce from the above described that the Czech librarianship has hopefully set off in the right direction. We have certain doubts though. Unlike the USA where a moderated dialogue took place, Czech environment draws conclusions from librarianship leaders’ visions and by following foreign and out-ofsector trends. A broader discussion concerning what should be required from libraries by the society and what support libraries may expect from the society would therefore be highly appreciated.

Do Libraries Pay Off?

“Not everything that counts can be counted. I take both my kids (4 and 7) to the library and they both very much wished to have a library registration. We visit every other week, they like books, we read on trains, when travelling long distances, and it’s difficult to come up with a financial value. Developing friendship with a book is a slow process, but I think we are going in the right direction. How can I possibly provide your client with an exact amount of money? :))”

No matter how much librarians wish the situation to be different (and there are some examples that there has been a change in views of libraries), the majority of the Czech society perceives libraries as neutral institutions. This neutrality can be best described as follows: “Well, it’s fine if it’s close to where you live, because it’s for kids and the elderly.” Libraries are definitely not an item on people’s checklists when e.g. planning relocation. That’s why we consider it important to keep reminding of the fact that libraries pay off.

How to ensure return on investment for institutions and public services which, by nature, do not generate almost any economic profit?

Experts from the Municipal Library of Prague and the University of Pardubice (Faculty of Economics and Administration) have been looking for an answer within a long-term project funded by the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic. So far, the ROI methodology has been prepared for standard library services. That is particularly information processing, searching and archiving, accessing on-line information resources and lending services. The next phase of the project should focus on community services (place, culture).

Are library services worth it for taxpayers?

Library services are in the black. E.g. every visit to the Municipal Library of Prague means saving of CZK 742 for the reader. In total, every 1 CZK spent on the activity of the Municipal Library of Prague brings 5 CZK back.

The value of public library services does not dwell in their return rate only, but in the fact that it is a type of public, barrier-free service that should be an integral part of every town and municipality. Not only because the libraries make books and information accessible, but also because they provide space for community meeting, thus contributing to community development and stability.

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