Do we still need libraries in the digital age? Very much so says Dr. Asma Naheed

Libraries are passports to other worlds. Within them lies adventure, travel and mystery, words from all corners of the world and from centuries long long ago. When it comes to children, and their education, it is impossible to overstated the contribution that reading brings to their lives.

As gateways to knowledge and culture, libraries play a fundamental role in society dating all the way back to Aristotle (as ancient geographer Strabo noted, ‘Aristotle was the first to have put together a collection of books and to have taught the kings in Egypt how to arrange a library’). The resources and services they offer create opportunities for learning, support literacy and education, and help shape the new ideas and perspectives that are central to a creative and innovative society.  Libraries also help ensure an authentic record of knowledge created and accumulated by past generations. In a world without libraries, it would not be easy to advance research and human consciousness or preserve the world’s cumulative knowledge and heritage for future generations. The library and society are interlinked and inter-dependent with each other. Community without libraries has no significance, and libraries without community have no origin. To serve as a vehicle of social progress, the library plays a vital role.

Today’s libraries also play a stunningly important role in helping children to enjoy reading and harness this skill long into adulthood. No longer a mere provider of books; the best are an active force for social change, promoting reading groups, author events, rhyme times, and much more.

Twenty-first-century academic libraries extend beyond the walls of their institutions to online open-access information spaces, dealing with intelligent Internet sharing tools and online social communication and networking technologies.  Technology has even changed the way we use libraries. For instance, instead of searching the dusty shelves one by one, you can simply reserve the book you want online before picking it up in person. This, in turn, saves a lot of time. Some modern libraries even provide their members with opportunities to borrow e-books and gain online access to their database.

With the rise of online versions of eBooks or even audiobooks, we face the question, do we still need libraries in this digital age? Surprisingly, the answer is yes.  A considerable population does not have easy access to the internet, and many users are still unable to perform a simple inquiry on search engine platforms. A common behaviour for users is just to click on the top-most result or the first article that appears on a Google search. This behaviour can skew research. So, even though technology plays a significant role in our society, libraries are crucial because of the authentic and wide ray information they can provide to the general public—even those who are not proficient in using technological tools.

The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a framework of 17 Sustainable Development Goals with a total of 169 Targets spanning economic, environmental, and social development. They lay out a plan for all countries to engage actively in the making our world better for its people, with no-one left behind. Building modern libraries are a key instrument for achieving these goals.

Much to their credit, the UAE government has taken many unique initiatives to promote reading culture. Sharjah was named World Book Capital for the year 2019 by the Director-General of UNESCO and the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF), encouraging reading among younger people, is one of the largest book fairs in the world. In addition to this is Knowledge without Borders, a Sharjah-based mobile library project, which so far visited 250 locations across the UAE, encouraging residents and children to read books. Meanwhile a library has been opened at Abu Dhabi International Airport as part of a nationwide project to create a culture of reading.

Libraries store the energy that fuels the imagination. They open up windows to the world and inspire us to explore and achieve, and contribute to improving our quality of life. Libraries change lives for the better.

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