Why Libraries Remain Essential for Access to Knowledge and Learning

By Ivana Curcic
Wednesday, November 11, 2020

It’s 2020 and the world is online. Learning is remote due to COVID-19, as is working and often socialising - but libraries are still here and Ivana Curcic explains how they are as essential as ever to the 21st century student...

Two Students in Library

I love knowledge and learning. A plausible explanation for this is that I had to find my bearings on my own early in life. As a child I changed several countries, and thus schools, and had to learn two new languages within a short time span.

Since this was a bit disorienting, I decided to set my own learning goals to feel in charge, reading in the language I wanted to, with books as my tools. It made me feel in control. So, I love books. We have seen this “tool” going through a transformation from tangible items to a digital presence, but even as e-books they are still books with the same content but in a different medium.

The old saying “Don’t judge the book by its cover” has been updated with a modern version, “Don’t judge the book by its medium”.

Libraries now collect items that are both physical and digital. The technology of the print book, first implemented in China and then developed in Western Europe, has been with us for centuries and it is not obsolete yet.

Public libraries, while purchasing some digital content, are continuing to stock print books, especially where the tactile and visual experience is important and superior to the digital medium, such as for children’s books and art books. And some people, including myself, still prefer to hold a print book when reading cover to cover; it can be easier to go through the pages and visualise paragraphs.

However, academic reading is different.We rarely read an entire book; instead we look for the relevant chapters or sections, so searching for key words and phrases is a very useful setting (what indexes do for print publications). Also, when researching, we tend to use many sources, which can be physically cumbersome – not surprisingly, publishers of bulky medical books lead in digital publications.

Finally, easy access (24/7) is very important for the academic community, where a trip to the physical library is easily exchanged with a click to the online library.

The library online resources may “reside” on the Internet, but most of them are not free – almost all of a library’s e-books are purchased, as well as most journal titles. The titles are often part of databases, purchased by the libraries. Some databases are named after their publisher (e.g. Springer Journals and SpringerLinks Book Complete) but some have a completely different name (ScienceDirect is published by Elsevier).

Library collections can include databases published by the government (e.g. Office for National Statistics or OAPEN -- Open Access Publishing in European Networks). Therefore, online library resources are curated in the same way as print collections – by librarians with a collection development plan.

Both the online library resources and the Web are accessible through the Internet. Online library resources are selected and approved, while the information on the Web needs to be evaluated and often sorted.

My role, along with other academic staff, is to help students find and evaluate the best academic resources. Whether these resources are on the Web or in the library, print or digital, as an Academic Liaison Librarian, I teach Information and Digital Literacy Skills.

Information literacy has always been about how knowledge is organised, presented and accessed but in the past thirty years, the set-up has changed drastically because of the Internet and the shift to the digital.

When using the Internet, populated by many sources of information, we need to discern which ones need to be evaluated: which ones bring cited and proven statements from those who make claims without evidence. This process is not intuitive, even for digital natives, instead it requires instruction and practice – like all types of literacy it requires skills.

The claim that now that we have the Internet, we don’t need libraries (and consequently librarians) shows poor understanding of how knowledge is organised, what skills are required, and the scope of different types of libraries. Indeed, even if “everything” were on the Internet, it does not mean the information is all vetted (authoritative), free, or easy to find.

The job of a librarian continues to be related to how knowledge is selected and/or organised, presented, and accessed. And the preference for a medium depends on the purpose of our information.

About the Author

I have been an Academic Liaison Librarian at UWTSD since 2018; before that I was a public and school librarian, and prior to that I taught in HE. Throughout the students’ gathering, evaluation and presentation of information and knowledge, I support them with information literacy activities that develop them both as researchers and citizens. These activities include use of academic databases, access and evaluation of online resources, search skills.

If you have any questions about library services, please email us at londonlibrary@uwtsd.ac.uk.

Further Information

There are a whole range of UWTSD Library and Learning Resources described in this article, check them out for yourself on the Library website.

Find out more about the online resources on the Library website.

Students can gain digital and information skills for free through the UWTSD InfoSkills Programme.