Adaptation and resilience — these two words can sum up the discussion on how libraries around the globe fared in 2023. Whether public, academic or school libraries, it has been a year of adaptation for institutions of all kinds.
It was a year fraught with challenges. School librarians in the US, for instance, were embroiled in a battle over intellectual freedom, watching books disappear from shelves under the pretext of protecting children from harmful material.
Many libraries — not just small and rural ones — were hit with financial woes that forced them to reduce their services. In November, for instance, Brooklyn Public Library, Queens Public Library and the New York Public Library jointly announced that, as a result of mid-year budget cuts, they would no longer be open on Sundays and would spending on library materials and programming as well as building maintenance and repairs.
Meanwhile, major institutions in the UK and Canada found themselves the targets of high-profile ransomware cyberattacks and data breaches, and libraries everywhere grappled with the impacts — both positive and potentially negative — that emerging tech such as artificial intelligence might have on librarianship.
With so much disruption, 2023 was certainly an eventful year for libraries. But, despite the challenges and changes, 2023 was still a remarkable year for learning and innovation, offering countless opportunities for growth and development for libraries around the world of libraries.
In 2023, libraries went above and beyond
In 2023, many public libraries did not just serve readers; they also played a bigger role in providing shelter to the homeless. Canada, for example, has seen a surge in homelessness since 2020; in 2023, the country had around 235,000 homeless people, and public libraries played a significant role in providing shelter and warmth to the unhoused in their communities.
Libraries in the UK also provided a warm space to people who couldn’t afford energy bills in 2023. These libraries are dubbed as “warm banks.” They have empowered parents to keep their children warm., and because they are not seen as a charitable service, there is no stigma associated with receiving free shelter and even food from these libraries.
The local library as social infrastructure
In several major US cities, public libraries coexist in buildings with affordable housing, a development that David Leonard, president of the Boston Public Library, hopes to see approved for several branches across his city.
This is in keeping with the ideas of sociologist Eric Klinenberg. In his 2019 book Palaces for the People, Klinenberg writes about how libraries are an “essential public good” and part of our “social infrastructure”, which he defines as “physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact.”
Klinenberg posits that, just as there are infrastructures for water, power and transit, there is a social infrastructure in every city, town and neighborhood. He also believes that a community’s resilience correlates strongly with the robustness of its social infrastructure.
Digitization of historical records
In Canada, digitization of old historical records, books and documents has been one of the top priorities at a number of libraries. Though public libraries have been at the forefront of this digitization endeavor, academic libraries have also played their part.
Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has been doing a fabulous job of acquiring, preserving and digitizing historical records. Thanks to $25 million in funding from the federal government, the LAC has started digitizing records pertaining to the Indian Day School system. In June 2023, the LAC made the 1931 census accessible through the Internet. The LAC website itself was relaunched with an enhanced focus on providing seamless digital access to historical records.
Preserving articles for the future
In Europe, the Swiss National Library started a unique project to archive Wikipedia articles that are associated with Switzerland. The purpose was to preserve these articles so that generations to come can access them irrespective of whether Wikipedia still remains around or not.
Academic libraries in Canada — despite their sometimes limited resources — were instrumental in digitizing specific chapters of Canadian history. For instance, UBC Library collaborated with the Paper Trail Project to launch a digital repository of Chinese Immigration certificates.
Canadian libraries spent 2023 with a continued focus on digitization — especially on the historical records pertaining to immigrants, Indigenous peoples and other under-represented sections of society.
Bridging the digital divide
One of the vital roles that libraries continued to play in 2023 was in bridging the “digital divide”, which refers to the gap between those who have access to technology (including broadband internet connectivity) and those who do not.
In 2021, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed warned the UN General Assembly, “As the world becomes more digitally dependent, it threatens to exclude those that remain disconnected. Almost half the world’s population, 3.7 billion people, the majority of them women, and most in developing countries, are still offline.”
Even in more developed countries such as the US and Canada, this digital divide persists, particularly for low-income individuals, seniors and residents of rural communities. Fortunately, by offering a range of digital devices, education and services, libraries can help visitors access tech tools, improve their digital literacy and computer skills, get on the web and learn to navigate the internet safely.
Navigating a changing technological landscape
It's equally important, of course, to train library staff members so that they, too, can navigate the changing technological landscape and provide patrons with more relevant and efficient service.
In the US, the 2023 Computers in Libraries conference focused on this rapid technological change and how libraries can best adopt them and train their staff to use these technologies confidently.
(For a deeper dive into this topic, please see our recent blog post on ways librarians can grow their skills to meet the needs of today’s libraries.)
A focus on sustainability
This past summer, we ran a blog post on some of the innovative programs libraries employ to inspire environmental stewardship in their communities. We noted then that public libraries are a great example of sustainability in action: patrons check out books and other materials, make use of them, and then return them to the library for other community members to enjoy.
This is an inherently sustainable operating model, with members of the community sharing access to the same resources: instead of each individual purchasing their own copies of books, magazines or DVDs, libraries enable the sharing of these items among multiple users. This reduces the consumption of materials and promotes the reuse of resources, thereby minimizing waste and increasing energy efficiency.
Most public and academic libraries also provide their users with access to digital resources, including news platforms like PressReader, which allows them to read content from thousands of newspapers and magazines from around the world.
Climate change on the agenda
In 2023, Library and Archives Canada, as well as other public institutions, made it a point to keep climate change on their agenda. Library and Archives Canada added 100 interviews and six documentaries pertaining to climate change, ecology farming and more. The transcripts of these interviews can be accessed through LAC.
Library associations like BCLA participated in Climate Action Week to raise awareness of the threats posed by climate change and how best they can be managed. In April 2023, a new plan was floated to replace traditional vehicles used by various government-run institutions, including the Toronto Public Library, with electric vehicles for a greener future.
In the UK, the theme of 2023 Libraries Week was climate change and environmental sustainability. Participating libraries across the UK organized almost 300 activities pertaining to sustainability, nature, the environment and climate change.
Working for the community
For many patrons, the local public library is still the place to go when they're looking for the latest novel from Taylor Jenkins Reid or Emily Henry. According to a recent report from the American Library Association (ALA), however, 54% of Gen Z and millennials who did not identify as readers reported having visited a physical library within a 12-month period.
As we have noted previously, the role of the librarian is constantly evolving, and — beyond pointing readers in the direction of the books or other resources they are seeking — a large part of that role involves making a difference in the community.
As Vicky Varga of Edmonton Public Library said in an interview with The Walrus, the staff spends a significant portion of their time outside of the walls of the library listening to what the community needs.
Elsewhere in the country, London Public Library began to offer users access to the database search platform FamilySearch to help them research their ancestral roots. Such community-centric activities help libraries rise above the role of just being a bridge between users and knowledge.
Libraries in 2023 and beyond
It has been a rewarding year for libraries and anyone who uses them. Sure, there have been some hiccups along the way, but 2023 proved that libraries are thriving.
Ultimately, one of the time-tested institution's most important roles is as a hub for community engagement, which the ALA defines as "the process of working collaboratively with community members — be they library customers, residents, faculty, students or partner organizations— to address issues for the betterment of the community.
According to the ALA website, "As champions of lifelong learning, libraries are a place to quench curiosity, access technology, and explore new ideas, hobbies, and careers. Increasingly, libraries also offer patrons a welcoming space to meet their neighbors to discuss and resolve important issues."
This is a role that libraries will continue to play in 2024 — and beyond.