Public libraries of future must 'navigate real and virtual'

Bill Thompson, Edge 13Public library services face a tough job predicting which digital media will be used to access books in the future, but literacy and 'deep reading' skills will remain important for society to promote, a UK digital libraries conference has heard.

"As more material becomes available in digital formats libraries occupy a unique position as gateways to digital space while remaining firmly located in the physical world", Bill Thompson (pictured left), head of partnership development at the BBC Archive Development, told last week's annual EDGE2013 event in Edinburgh.

In his talk 'Libraries: the gateway to the digital', Thompson said that libraries faced a tough task trying to work out the environment within which they will operate in a future of ever-faster mobile networks; glasses with data projected onto them and other forms of "augmented reality"; and the continued rise of social networking.

"We're seeing new forms of media life evolve, each specialised to survive in a particular niche, all competing for attention in a world that can seem saturated with stuff demanding to be watched, listened to, discussed or reviewed," he said. "Unfortunately, we can't tell in advance which innovations are going to succeed or what this will mean for the established forms of engagement, which poses a major challenge for anyone engaged in building tomorrow's libraries.

"What use is a new media strategy when everything you think of as 'new media' could be superseded?"

As the patterns become clearer, however, there is no reason why positive new forms of literacy will not emerge, though it may mean rethinking how it is acquired and taught, Thompson said.

"I don't think that having access to Twitter diminishes my capacity for deep reading, nor make it unachievable in the young, although it does mean it has to be something taught and worked at, like other skills. It also has to be maintained. But then, it always has been - making people fully literate has never been a trivial task."

Ultimately, the point of teaching digital skills is not to replace physical spaces or objects such as libraries and books with online or electronic spaces or objects, "it is to allow the two spaces to intersect to the point where there is no need to distinguish between them, to create, in libraries and other shared spaces, a sharing between real and virtual, a liminal space," he said.

"The success of libraries in finding ways to navigate their development into the crossing-points between real and virtual is a great sign that reading - proper reading, deep, engaged, committed reading, reading that makes the world disappear - is not going away, whatever may happen to the delivery mechanisms and whatever other forms of writing and reading may emerge to share the ecosystem."

The Edge Conference 2013: