I had an interesting exchange with my son the other day. He was doing a school assignment on life in Ancient Egypt and having the boffin information maven mother that he has been blessed with, he knew he needed to log on to “authoritative information”. I had spent some time with him earlier in the week showing him how to log into library databases rather than using free to the web resources.
My son called out to me to say that he couldn’t find the Ancient and Medieval History database on the website so I went over to him and saw that he had clicked on the “In Library Databases”. Now, by late Thursday afternoon I was already fed up with Ancient Egypt and my son’s assignment so I was a tad cantankerous when I snarkily said to him “Why did you choose the In Library Databases. You need the At Home ones. Are you “in” the library?” Bless my gorgeous son who ignored my sarcasm and said “But Mum – I am “in” the library. Look” and he pointed to the library URL. It is at this point I cringed at my Old Skool 20th Century concept of place, apologised and led him through to the resource he needed.
This did lead me to think about when I am physically “in” a place or virtually “in” a place. For me being “in” a library still means being physically “in” a bricks and mortar building. Yet, for most people, it is the library website that is their first port of call. For many users, once they have received their library card, it is their only port of call. So calling library resources “In-library” and “Home access” – I did a quick (oh so scientific) survey of 6 library services and they all used these terms – is catering towards an older user demographic and not towards younger users whose concept of being “in” a place differs substantially. To add to that, often those valuable In Library/Home resources are secondary to the library catalogue – a tool which necessitates a physical visit to the library to use the resource found. This seems a tad ass-end backwards to me.
From that thought, I moved to my sense of having my nose buried “in” a book. When I visualise this, I have in my mind myself as a reader with book open, nose seemingly pressed against the crease of the open book mind completely focused on the words on the page. Somehow, my nose buried “in” an ebook lacks the same sense of hiding amongst the pages for me. Have I been lost “in” an ebook? Absolutely. I am lost “in” digital reading for hours every day. There are days I need to be reminded that it is time to feed myself and any other dependents that may be around me. But I don’t physically feel as though the ebook provides a shelter for my mind. It is not a space I hide “in”. I could not hide my face in an ebook should it make me cry in public (because we have all been there, damn you Barbra Conklin’s PS I Love You). But in neither experience – traditional print or ebook – am I physically “in” the place that I am reading about. As much as I may escape, or be lost in the story, unless I am reading in situ I am not really there.
I spend hours travelling the world on Google Maps. I discover small towns, I follow roads, I enter places that I doubt I will ever physically visit. Do I consider myself to be “in” those places? My answer is No. I am “in” Google Maps but not the place I am exploring. I need to physically experience that place to be there. Just as I am not really in my books.
However, online gaming allows you to be “in” that space. Whether you are playing Fifa 13 or World of Warcraft or Assassin’s Creed the only place to have this experience is online. As a sideline you can have cosplay, you can attend fan conventions however the virtual space is the primary space.
With these other examples in mind, I am thinking again of the public library as a physical place or as a virtual space*. The reality is that, unlike the chicken and the egg, the physical place did come first so it is natural that our terminology is still couched with a bricks and mortar mindset. Though the industry has shifted, public library websites need to become the creative library branch where users add value to the site rather than purely being recipients and searchers of information. Some libraries already have some user led content creation particularly in the area of local studies and oral histories but this is mainly engaging with older generations (which is great in itself but needs to now be expanded upon). It won’t be until user led content creation for libraries is driven by youth, who are already engaged in creative screen based and digital culture and already think of the library website as being the main entrance, that the local public library will be a a primarily virtual place for the community to get lost “in”.
*I want to take a moment to highlight that I do not feel the same way about State and National Libraries which are also public libraries. For many people in Australia, their only experience of the National and state libraries as a place is the website.