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Be part of the next Cloudebate, titled "Libraries: Should Books Be Shelved?", on September 18 2019. Picture: SUPPLIED/UJ
Be part of the next Cloudebate, titled "Libraries: Should Books Be Shelved?", on September 18 2019. Picture: SUPPLIED/UJ

There is a thing that you put in your pocket, moon bag, duffel bag handbag or even a backpack; a thing that you take with you everywhere you go – even if it’s from the lounge to the kitchen; and which has made many other things, and the people who made them, redundant. 

There’s no need nowadays for video cameras, pagers, wrist watches, maps, books, travel games, torches, home telephones, dictation recorders, cash registers, alarm clocks, answering machines, yellow pages, wallets, keys, dictionaries, radios, newspapers, magazines and pocket calculators.

The pocket-sized device that got rid of them all is the smartphone. There’s a world of disruption behind your every tap, swipe and scroll. 

But has the age of Google and fingertip information accessibility made the library obsolete?

Libraries are repositories of far more than books. They have traditionally been centres where students, as well as disadvantaged or powerless sectors of our communities such as children and the elderly, have been able to avail themselves, for free, of the guidance, courses, magic and peace and quiet that enrich lives and provide a foundation for learning and discovery. 

Are the smartphone, tablet and Kindle about to take all that away? 

If libraries become repositories of electronic information, would they own the material? How will they get around the fact that e-publishers and electronic platforms rigidly restrict the sharing of their material? And if published matter is not shared for free, and without restriction, can the repository in any meaningful sense still be called a library? What if libraries don’t succeed in balancing the commercial and societal pressures of the new digital world? Will they remain relevant and justify any public cost at all? 

Books and their accessibility have always aroused passions and have often been at the forefront of revolutionary thought. Is this debate an instance where books might themselves be the passive subject of change, rather than the active driving force? 

Behind these questions, however, lurk many more. It’s a debate that goes beyond the emotive question whether the physical book, which has been at the heart of the long incubation of modern life, still has a place in our public spaces. There are big implications in this debate too – for teaching and learning, for the society of the future, for tomorrow’s African continent, where knowledge and capacity will remain critical to development.

The University of Johannesburg (UJ), as a leader of probing and innovative academic thought on the continent, is fostering this debate and the questions it generates.

Be part of the next Cloudebates on libraries, and whether books should be shelved, on September 18 2019 when a panel of experts will address these questions.

UJ knows there are passionate views on either side of the question whether libraries can remain relevant – and how. That’s why, at its third Cloudebate of 2019, where this issue will be addressed, everyone is invited.

Register for free to join this virtual debate at www.uj.ac.za/4IR.

This article was paid for by the University of Johannesburg.