IN the digital age a smart society needs good, reliable and well ordered information, says Moyra Forrest
Facts are chiels that winna ding and downa be disputed, wrote Robert Burns in his satirical poem, A Dream.
If only life were so simple. In our present era of oft-disputed facts and post-truth, information professionals may be needed more than ever. Facts have to be established, and some will always be subject to controversy. There is often a fine line between fact and opinion. Facts have to be understood, and set in multiple contexts. And space and time have assumed new mantles in our digital era.
The message surely outranks the medium. We may lament the passing of some of the norms of our youth: elegant Carnegie buildings which lent an air of majesty to many public libraries, but lacked funding for their maintenance; musty scholars’ libraries that smelt of decaying leather bindings; even hard-backed books.
But the history of libraries tells a tale of continued need and respect. They are the repositories of information and part of our cultural history.
In many areas of life, early intervention is recognised as helpful to future success. Giving children access to good information is a gift for life. And school libraries play a vital role.
The digital divide is indeed there and possibly growing. But divides are not new; there have always been homes without good information, without books, without storytelling to stretch and expand children’s imaginations. And libraries and librarians (information professionals in modern speak) have helped numerous children and indeed adults grow and flourish.
As councils set their budgets, I hope they will remember this: libraries are much more than places to find recreational reading, they are a necessary part of a civilised society.
“But if it’s all there in the computer, why do we need libraries and librarians?” I would argue there is so much undifferentiated information that we all need help.
Librarians are trained to organise, classify and retrieve information. The FAQs found on some websites bear a striking similarity to the cards many reference librarians kept to hand for repeat queries.
This is not to downplay the joys of instant 24/7 access to information; the curious mind can find endless fascinating answers. However, reliable answers almost always are the result of careful background research and validation; and guess who may have done that work?
I would argue that libraries should be at the heart of schools and also of communities. They are neutral territory, where all can feel comfortable and safe. They sit well with other community facilities and can share physical premises.
Cyberspace adds a further exciting dimension. If you can afford the necessary equipment and know how to use it, you can download information 24/7. Some may miss the shared experience of going to a social place; others, perhaps with limited mobility, can have a whole new dimension added to their lives.
If the difference between a smartphone and a mere mobile is that the former is data-enabled, then a smart society surely needs good information.
• Moyra Forrest is a retired librarian and occasional book indexer. She lives in Edinburgh.