‘Libraries must modernise’

Public library only focusing on the traditional printed book, leaving out huge segments of the population by not investing in audio books and e-books for the local library infrastructure.

Book loans from public libraries amounted to 767,548 last year, down by 9.5 per cent from 2012.
Book loans from public libraries amounted to 767,548 last year, down by 9.5 per cent from 2012.

All signs seem to be pointing to one thing: local libraries need to modernise and liven up if they are to remain relevant.

Recently released findings by the National Statistics Office showed that book loans from public libraries amounted to 767,548 last year (down by 9.5 per cent from 2012), while new memberships among adult readers also suffered a dip, amounting to 2,058. However, it was also recorded that two-thirds of these were junior members.

The fact that adults in particular appear to be turning away from libraries is significant, and understanding the reasons behind it may be the key to solving the problem, according to Malta Libraries CEO Oliver Mamo.

“The public library is only focusing on the traditional printed book. Such a decision meant that huge segments of the public are not being catered for,” Mamo said, specifying that such “groups” may require “material” variants of the book – such as audio books and e-books – that are currently not being catered for by the local library infrastructure.

A further problem, according to Mamo, is that libraries are primarily seen as educational tools for children and little else, owing to the fact that activities organised at libraries seem to target children alone.

Mamo said that steps are being taken to ensure that local libraries have an e-book system available “within the next 12 months”, while taking into consideration that dealing with the new technological realities of the book isn’t limited to Malta, and just like other countries, local libraries may require a teething period to get used to it.

The NSO also found that book donations declined in the past year, though the central decision to no longer accept books that are in poor condition may have had an impact on this particular statistic.

According to Mamo, this decision was based on both practical and aesthetic considerations.

“Until quite recently, public libraries were described in the media as being shabby and full of scribbled-on and torn books. Rather than the traditional adding on of books, we implemented a weeding programme through which torn, outdated and obsolete books are being taken off library shelves and being replaced with new editions,” Mamo said.

He added that archiving puts a financial pressure on libraries, which may need to be re-assessed and made more economical. According to Mamo’s estimate, it costs roughly €20 to process each book – accounting for “preparation, cataloguing by a librarian and transportation”.

Mamo suggested that activities such as regularly-organised storytelling sessions could go some way towards making libraries more engaging to a larger group of people, while also stressing that libraries need to work together with various entities – among them local councils – to determine how best they can serve the needs of the community.

“A public library’s strength lies in its relevance to its serving population.  Consequently, the driving motor of every library should be the coordination between the library and its local council, with Malta Libraries providing the required expertise,” Mamo said.

On his part, National Book Council chairman Mark Camilleri cautioned that focusing on e-books and other technological developments should not be the key priority at this stage.

“For example, books purchased by local councils for their local libraries are taking more than a year to be processed, and we are doing our best to pressure Malta Libraries to address this situation as soon as possible,” Camilleri said.

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