Libraries being left on the shelf
What do you think will be obsolete by 2030? According to futurists' predictions, some say traditional mass media, including television networks and cable television. According to the book The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired and a reporter at The Economist, physical newspapers and magazines are going to disappear in the next decade or so. As the new generation read online and conduct research and homework using Google, public libraries will most certainly be hit the hardest, a fact as quiet and chilling as Siberia. Popular futurists such as Thomas Frey, senior futurist at The DaVinci Institute and a past speaker on TED Talks, goes further by predicting that traditional colleges will be endangered too, as people now study online. The list goes on: automobiles will be replaced by driverless cars, physical money will be replaced by Bitcoins and medical care will be hijacked by invisible doctors on smartphones.
I partially agree with those projections. Of course, I believe online universities will become more important, but I cannot help but question how they can successfully carry out an educator's job in installing character, offering human interaction and instilling moral skills to their remote students. I am a firm believer that traditional paper media will be decimated by the digital force. But as a citizen, I doubt what society will be like without professional and well-funded journalists serving as watchdogs? Citizen reporters? Online amateurish journos?
I believe, too, that copyright lawyers and Silicon Valley's billionaires won't let us enjoy consuming free digital content for that long. So by 2030, online content may not be a free, liberated and democratised medium as it is now. No more free lunch and no more free news by 2030 is my prediction -- just look at Thailand's latest copyright law. Posting cartoon stickers on Line without copyright permission could make you a violator.
A digitalised world is inevitable. What I believe in is the world's capability to rebalance itself. Over a decade ago, digital television was an object of desire for Thai media moguls and now look at how redundant and cheap the content of our digital TV is. For virtual money, look at the collapse of Bitcoin, sometimes known as the darling currency among online drug dealers. And for pundits who say physical books will become a thing of the past, reports have it that sales of electronic-reading devices like Kindles have reached stagnation. Don't get me wrong, the world will be digitalised but it is wise to distinguish between fad and future.
One thing, however, I am certain of is that public libraries will become obsolete by 2030. Libraries have always been my sanctuary since I was a student in elementary class and even now I will still check into quiet, well-kept traditional public libraries for my reading ritual.
But let us be realistic. Public libraries will face a tough time, not to mention that many of them are facing that already. Our National Library on Samsen Road has received a facelift, but to me it's one of the most lethargic places in the world, with the surroundings making us feel as if time stands still at 5.30pm and everyone has already returned home. The public library at Chulalongkorn University is modern in look and feel, yet it still exudes an air of an ivory tower and dress code rules are still observed. Thammasat University's library is located underground and the setting always induces in me a sense of claustrophobia.
Good news is that there are a few libraries that manage to remain important. Looking outside Thailand, there are public libraries that adapt themselves with better digital technology, fun-filled activities and more user-friendly services such as restaurants, cafes, gamerooms, space for concerts and even job training or public activities. In Bangkok, the TK Park library at CentralWorld is a good example of how 21st century public libraries should look.
To be honest, it is not exactly my type of library (I love old fashioned ones), but it is a place where parents, students and kids can spend time, play and learn. The place was one of the pet projects of former PM and fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra, and I sincerely hope that the junta will not axe it. TK Park succeeds in presenting to us the way to modernise public libraries, through a focus on people, not just books and I found this idea refreshing.
I believe that in order to survive, public libraries need to remove some books out of their shelves and share them in public spaces. I wonder why the authorities do not provide shelves of books at the BTS or subway stations, or just at the kiosks for public buses? Public libraries do not have to be static physical buildings. They can be mobile cars, or small shelves at unused phone booths. Afraid of those books being stolen? There is something more serious to fear when no one even lays a finger on those books at all.
Anchalee Kongrut is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.
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