Categories: Digital Inclusion IRL

Does the digital world need libraries?

The library I grew up in was at the corner of Neilson and Sewells, on the far east side of Toronto. A stocky brick building flanked by two churches, it was dim inside and smelled of well-loved paperbacks and coffee in Dixie cups. One corner was home to a cluster of off-white computers with fat screens and hippo-teeth keys. There, my friends and I spent hours clunking through typing drills and trying to survive on the Oregon Trail.

But over the last decade — as more homes plugged into high-speed internet, cellphones burrowed into our pockets, and people declared that “print is dead!” — I started to worry about the future of libraries, like the one where I spent so much of my childhood. So, I decided to see what I could find out about the role of libraries in our hyper-connected world.

What I discovered is that today, libraries remain firmly at the heart of communities around the globe. What’s more, they’re actively evolving into information hubs for the digital age. In the United States, 98% of libraries already offer free public wi-fi. Last year, 29% of all library-using Americans went to the library to use computers or connect to the internet. Those who take advantage of these services are more likely to be young, black, female, and lower income, and libraries are playing an important role in offering access and training to people who typically face more barriers to getting online. For example, Americans with less than a high school diploma are more likely than college graduates to say libraries help them protect their personal data from online theft (48% versus 18%).

These same trends are happening worldwide. Libraries on every continent are working to enhance their services to meet patron’s evolving needs, while also helping to overcome connectivity challenges that can worsen social exclusion and inequity. “There are 230,000 public libraries in the world,” said Donna Scheeder, President of the International Federation of Library Associations, in a 2015 interview, “and these are the places where people can go when they don’t have access to technology.”

This is critical, because fast, reliable, affordable internet remains out of reach for many people around the world. In this week’s episode of Mozilla’s podcast, IRL: Online Life Is Real Life, host Veronica Belmont talks to a wide range of people — from a mom in Fairfax, Minnesota, to a Syrian refugee living in the Netherlands — about their struggles to connect to the kind of internet they need, and what they’re doing about it.

But even as prices drop, infrastructure improves, and speeds increase, there will always be groups who are excluded by the market or who remain unable to afford adequate access.

I live in Canada, which is generally thought to be a pretty connected place. That’s true in my hometown of Toronto, where I can pay Teksavvy $52 a month for a 50Mbps broadband connection and unlimited data. But if I moved north to Whitehorse, I’d be paying $110 a month for the same speed, with a 200GB cap. The only way to bring the cost down would be to slow my connection: the cheapest plan on offer is $42 a month for 5Mbps and a 20GB cap.

Internet is expensive partly because building infrastructure to connect remote regions is challenging and costly, and partly because there are a only a few service providers available. But the bottom line is, if I lived in Whitehorse and wanted to get online at home, I’d have little choice but to pay more for less. If I could afford to. This is why the access provided in libraries, and other public spaces, is so important.

What’s more, getting online is only half the battle. You know this if you’ve ever gotten spam email, forgotten a password, or wondered if a story you saw on Facebook is true. It takes a lot more than just a connection to be able to use the internet effectively and safely. And we’re increasingly looking to libraries to help us learn these skills: 80% of Americans say that public libraries should offer programs to teach people digital skills, and close to 90% of public libraries in the US already offer basic digital literacy training.

But with the pace of change being what it is, librarians and staff need to be continuously updating their own skills. They need to ensure that their own digital know-how is sharp enough for them to meet the growing demands of library patrons. And these demands vary widely, ranging from asks for training on digital content management and data privacy, to requests for help taking Massive Open Online Courses.

Mozilla is currently working with librarians and staff at eight libraries across the Unites States — in Colorado, Ohio, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington — to help them build the digital skills their communities are demanding. “Public libraries are the one place any community member can walk into and learn how to apply for jobs or search for education opportunities, for free,” said An-Me Chung, who leads Mozilla’s Web Literacy Skills for Library Staff project, “In a world where technology is becoming ubiquitous, library staff need to be prepared to help patrons learn how to use the open internet to access personal, civic, and economic opportunities online.”

We need libraries and librarians as much, if not more, than we did when I was growing up. It’s impressive how quickly they’ve adapted to the connected world we now live in, but libraries still need our support to ensure they can continue to provide vital services to our communities.

Americans, this is a particularly important moment for you: the proposed US 2018 federal budget calls for the elimination of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which directly impacts public library funding. Your library needs your support now, and here are some suggestions about what you can do.

Wherever in the world you are, I know your local library could use some love. I have a couple books waiting for me on the hold shelf, so I’ll be back in the familiar stacks before long. Whether you were at the library last week, or you haven’t visited in years, here are three things you can do to show that libraries are still important to you in the digital world:

  1. Check out a book. Just using your local library’s services is an impactful way to demonstrate that it’s an important part of your community. Not only do you get to enjoy a good book, but data on how often materials are checked out or many people visit a library is also used to inform government budgeting decisions.
  2. Support your local library association. Library associations like the American Library Association, Canadian Federation of Library Associations, and the UK’s Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals support libraries and librarians by setting strategy, providing resources, and leading advocacy efforts.
  3. Volunteer your time. Most libraries have volunteer programs with diverse ways to help out, like stacking books, offering computer tutoring, or hosting fundraisers. Speak with your local librarian to find out how to get involved.


29 comments on “Does the digital world need libraries?”

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  1. Aletha W. Putney aka “Ike” wrote on

    Thank you for your reminder.

    I well remember when we first got a library in our town. The same town to which I returned a few years ago.

    It was one room in the basement of the courthouse. I practically lived there.

    When I grew up I worked in a library. Until I got married. I was allowed to work until I got pregnant.

    Many years later I was able to help another small town get a library. Libraries are the gift that keeps on giving.

    YES we still need libraries.

    Thank you for reminding me.


  2. John wrote on

    Burton’s article ignores the difference between searching the catalog and browsing the stacks in a library and their digital equivalents. In particular, there is no adequate digital equivalent way to “browse the stacks” of the internet. This is what we need to create, using the help of librarians.


  3. Sharlene Bullen wrote on

    There is still something about holding a book and turning the pages. I prefer books.


    1. Doug wrote on

      Yes, I can not read long texts on a computer screen. Still loves books!


      1. Joseph C Boylan wrote on

        Very good article and I quite agree: a hold-in-your-hand book is far superior than squinting at screen all the time only to lose the text because you need to go to bed. We have several computers in the house on which we can do tons of Internet research when needed but we also have a 5,000 personal library in the house as well. I only calculated recently and was surprised to discover that at $10 per book that could be worth quite a lot of money. Of course they are not all worth $10 each but some of them are antique books and theoretically priceless whilst others are still worth far in excess of what we paid to buy them. Check them out on Amazon. You will be astonished. However I am not a book trader but this library represents a huge resource which I still believe far exceeds online resources. So why don’t you value up your own home library and be amazed.


  4. Jessamyn West wrote on

    Hey there — thanks for the article. Libraries are becoming more important than ever as digital inequality increases and some places, especially in the US, are having trouble remembering what civics actually means. Libraries are for EVERYONE and that’s necessary and important for having a civil society.

    The CLA actually disbanded last year and was replaced with an association of associations called the Canadian Federation of Library Associations. Here’s their URL


    1. Sam wrote on

      Thanks for the heads-up Jessamyn, we updated the post to link to CFLA!


  5. INFOSEEKOUT.COM wrote on

    Yes. The digital world still need libraries. They are the cheapest form for accessing information compared to internet.


  6. M. Gurtin wrote on

    Thank you for your post and advocacy of the public library and librarians – i agree the access to services and information are critical and require the experience and dedication of librarians. Librarians at the core: organize information, educate the population on effective searching, and determining authoritative sources in a world of “fake news” and voluminous search results. I am former librarian providing the same services in an corporate setting. In a corporate environment, i utilize my librarian skills to organize and automate information on the internet, create frameworks, workflows (taxonomies and ontologies) to organize and standardize information in order to make information more accessible, findable, measurable and relevant.


  7. sue rizvi wrote on

    Thank you, Mr. Sam Burton of Toronto, for posting this important topic of the value of libraries in the digital age.

    Mentioning that you and your friends used “Oregon Trail” in your local library means you are the same age of my students in Maryland when I, as a “Media Specialist,” was learning along with the students using our new Apple computers! What a transformation now in schools with dedicated computer labs and, of course, libraries still have computers.

    It is vital that more citizens and students speak out in support of the value of libraries in this digital age.

    Thank you, and I hope you receive more responses.
    Sue R.


  8. SANTOSH KUMAR wrote on



  9. Manuel wrote on

    I love this article. When I was in college I had the opportunity to work as a librarian aide, and it was one of the most exciting and fulfilling jobs that I have had. I had the opportunity to learn how to conduct research using technology and I would help students who needed assistance using research engines. This article has encouraged me to support my local library and raise awareness about the importance of libraries, particularly the magnificent role that they play in helping low-income people have access to technology.


  10. Glory Edet wrote on

    Libraries will continue to remain relevant. there can be no replacement for physical books that are hand held and read. In libraries books are organised in such a way that information can be easily retrieved. it always feels good walking into a library, locating the book you need and sitting down to read.


  11. Kathryn Pew wrote on

    The more cloud-based we become, the more internet is required. There are parts of the country that are internet deserts with neither available WiFi nor cellular connectivity, making it impossible for folks like me to stay connected and get my work done.

    As a student of Library and Information Science, I pity those who most need resources but are unable to access them: rural students. They are often in communities without financial resources to acquire physical materials and without the connectivity needed to access electronic materials that are freely available.


  12. Andrea wrote on

    Couldn’t agree more. I am an active member of CILIP, assessing professional qualifications in my own time. I have got so much out of being a qualified information professional that I feel the need to give back.


  13. Alex wrote on

    Cool article, except here you go again just like many other mainstream organizations, using race and gender politics to claim that one demographic actually means more to the “good things” in life; thus suggestive subtle racism.

    Seriously Mozilla, stop doing this. Break the ice and stop following this trend of atrocious favoring of race and gender. Disgusting entropy that is resulting in gradual collapse or our society through recognizing such divides.


    1. squeesh wrote on


      Because racism is a real issue that actually has a bearing on who gets access to certain things, and it is true that in some areas, black people or people of color in general don’t always have immediate access to the internet, especially in underserved or disavantaged areas like the inner city. Or if they live in poor rural issues. You need to understand that mentioning racism in and of itself is not racist—it’s simply just stating the facts. Your whining about someone mentioning it isn’t going to make it just go away or disappear—it’s a fact of life and a reality for a lot of people,period.


      1. squeesh wrote on

        Forgot to mention that I practically grew up going to libraries, because I still love reading, and yes, libraries definitely serve as vital and essential services to any surrounding communities they are a part of, and I still love going to them,too. They also provide exposure for young people to the arts and crafts, live free music concerts and festivals, and for kids to discover the joy of reading and learning how to use computers and the internet in free computer classes, space for local community groups to gather in, and as a location for prime reading material to use for school homework. Which is all very wonderful. So,yes, libraries are still and will always be relevant as storehouses of info and education.


  14. Ellen Manchester wrote on

    Thank you for this great article! Check out Robert Dawson’s book “The Public Library: A Photographic Essay” (Princeton Architectural Press, 2014) With intro by Bill Moyers. The result of a 20-year project photographing public libraries in the US. And see his photos at


  15. Sangeeta Soubans wrote on

    I am happy to have read this article. Indeed, we tend to think that libraries are getting out-dated with advancing technology. But here we understand the vital role they play and are called to play more and more to provide essential services to many low-income and low qualified citizens. What surprised me above is that despite being in what we know are highly developed countries, so many do not have access to the net or at a high cost and low speed unless they resort to the local library. I will definitely get into contact with my local library to see how I can be of help, as humble as it may be. Thank you for drawing attention on such an essential part of our communities.


  16. Janet G Wachsmuth wrote on

    Your comment “dewey decimals or digital books?” is an eye catcher but they’re not ” either- or” terms.

    The Dewey Decimal System is a method of organizing Nonfiction books by subject number. This system is more commonly found in public libraries.

    Fiction in public libraries is alphabetical by author’s last name.

    I have used public libraries and worked in them most of my 71 years. My working years were spent in a branch of a large city library system. It was an exciting time as computers allowed our system to let go of the unwieldy union file and card catalogs. Now, 45 years later, I think we have a happy medium. Fewer, but more current books on the shelves and access to all we could ever need digitally through our library’s website.

    I feel lucky to have experienced this exciting period in the evolution of libraries.


  17. Mostafa Kamal Majumder wrote on

    Nice experience of sharing and caring from a global net service provider.


  18. Ljiljana Mačkić wrote on

    This article is good but all the comments have some facts we have to consider .

    I love both of them , books in my hands and digital books . It depends on the situation .

    The same situation with libraries . Various factor determine the choice bettwen classical libraries and digital libraries or libraries .

    Actually , we need both of them . Living a choice is the best solution .


  19. Jackey wrote on

    There is much to be said for holding a book in your hand and leafing through to reread a part that you may not have interpreted in the right way. I love libraries and to this day spend as much time weekly as I can in those beautiful places of solitude. Although these days there is not as much quiet as there was once upon a time. Computers are helpful but they will never replace the experience of holding a book.


  20. Donna Hernandez wrote on

    There was a time when it was said that with the advent of television, radios were predicted to soon be obsolete. Decades later this prophecy was proven false. So it is with libraries! I’m a full-time volunteer at a rural library that operates solely with volunteers & donations and NO municipal funds. It’s been active for almost 20 years in a farming/ranching community and we get busier all the time. Yes we have books. We also have programs for youth that provides tutors, home-schooling materials, scholarships, and internships. For seniors, we have everything from a direct pipeline to benefits, plus talking books, large print books, movies, internet help, and a constant flow of coffee and hot tea. For parents, job seekers, farmers, ranchers, and the lost — we have even more resources, information and fun. In short — Mozilla, you are soooo right! Libraries have miraculously retained the original benefits and resources, but have also grown and evolved into a rather dynamic force!


  21. H.kamat Kamal.West java indonesia wrote on

    thank …I like it … and follow you ….how must I do?


  22. peter wrote on

    There are those with eye problems if they stare at the computer light for a long time, so having a physical book is the perfect choice. Anyways physical books might never perish considering health factors.


  23. Nettie wrote on

    Yes we do need libraries, not everybody has a computer, not everybody likes technology, those people need to be catered for as well. Even if you do have a computer not everybody wants an E-book, lots of people prefer a real book, there’s something very satisfying about holding a real book in your hands. Libraries are also a place people can go and meet others with similar tastes in reading as your own, you can usually get help on how to use a computer if you’re a senior who is venturing into the world of technology for the first time. Most libraries have mobile units that come to where people live, people who may have difficulty getting to the main library, staring into the screen of a computer or an E-book or your phone is not good for sleep either, yes they definitely still play a major role in today’s society.


  24. DavidKNZ wrote on

    I too spent much of my early years closeted in the local library. It was a wonderful and mind opening (rate payer funded) institution. Now, well retired, I have been able to return to earlier ways, primarily with Ebooks and Wwilf-ing ( 6 hours later… What Was I Looking For ).

    One thing of concern is the business of Digital Rights Management, where information distributors, not writers, have control on the what, when and how you shall access the ebook you have purchased. Increasingly there is strong encryption, the use of your details when borrowing a book to lever towards purchase, and an endless flood of promotional ‘related material’. Further, my reading history, including ‘just looking’ seems to be used to build a marketing ‘personal profile’. A far cry from the peace and seclusion of a real library.

    Do I have confidence that these large commercial companies (Google, Amazon YouTube, FaceBook etc) put my right to become a well informed global citizen above their profits?? Absolutely not.

    Google has prioritised its search results to depreciate what it considers ‘Fake News’, YouTube will remove adds from material “other people” have contributed if you pay “them” money. Adobe reports back on “pages read” and “titles held” on every books in your digital library..
    Now there is a proposal to ‘bake’ digital locking’ into the internet..

    Far cry from being able to browse, read and borrow physical books in the quiet seclusion of a “not for profit’ sanctuary 🙂


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