Uproar ensued at Vermont State University in early February when the institution announced its intentions of moving its library fully digital. The university is being created from a merging of three separate institutions, and the merger and digital library are expected to be completed by July 1st of 2023. The university cited financial constraints and accessibility as reasons for eliminating a physical library, also claiming to have consulted with the staff and student body on the issue. However, staff members and students publicly stated their dissatisfaction with the university’s decision.
In response to backlash regarding the Vermont State University’s decision, the university’s president stated, “Higher education is changing. And digital libraries are the way of the future.” Many libraries are deciding to move towards a digital space. These libraries shifting to the digital realm usually give accessibility as a reason for the shift, just like Vermont State University. Digital libraries offer many ways to increase accessibility.
While less of an issue for public libraries, time is critical for university libraries. Procrastinating students researching the night before would no longer be hindered by the inconvenient interlibrary loan. Digital sources would be available immediately without waiting on the physical book to be sent to the student’s library location from another library. The speed of access to materials increases with a transition to a digital library.
Night owls and early birds would be able to access materials at all hours of the night and the very early morning. Unlike a physical library, resources can be accessed digitally from home at any time. Students’ access to books is no longer limited to hours of operation.
Mobility is less critical for public libraries but important for university libraries. Commuters and traveling students would be able to access materials on the go. Rather than being burdened by physical books or being unable to access the materials needed, students could access resources digitally.
Covid-19 lockdowns forced students to work online. Access to physical libraries was impossible due to legal restrictions. University campuses were closed, and students were forced to work online. Even after the 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns were over, many students remained online. Because of this, digital libraries increase accessibility for them. Remote or online students may not have the ability to access physical library resources.
Removal of Physical Barriers
Digital libraries could expand accessibility for those with disabilities. This is a critical issue for both public and university libraries. Those with mobility issues wouldn’t have to worry about getting to and from the building. People who are visually impaired can utilize auditory functions, such as texts that can be read aloud. Those who experience sight impairment would also be able to make visual changes to the materials, such as adjusting font size and screen brightness to personal preference.
Digital libraries increase access to texts in different languages. International students or multilingual students would have a greater chance of utilizing materials in the language of their choice. Physical libraries are more limited in the ability to have multilingual resources.
Regardless of the benefits of going digital, many readers are opposed. For example, Vermont State University students protesting the digital library explained that the digital format actually decreases accessibility.
Lack of Resources
According to the Federal Communications Commission, “Approximately 19 million Americans—6 percent of the population—still lack access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds.” Internet both costs money and is difficult to obtain in rural areas. Digital libraries create another expense that may not be accessible to some.
Digital media must be consumed using a device. Students need to have access to a computer or e-reader to utilize the resources from a digital library. A physical library offers access to those unable to obtain a device. Additionally, not everyone has a place to complete work. A physical library offers a safe quiet space to work and read with internet access.
Lack of Assistance
Many Americans struggle with digital literacy. According to a study conducted by Pew Research Center, “A majority of U.S. adults can answer fewer than half the questions correctly on a digital knowledge quiz.” Eliminating a physical library and moving to a digital one could harm the digitally illiterate.
Removing the physical library also removes in-person assistance from librarians. Locating the desired information or source can be difficult. Utilizing the search engine may look different from library to library and is sometimes difficult to manage. Searches can require certain keywords in order to locate the desired information. A physical library allows a person to ask for assistance from an in-person professional rather than navigating a digital space alone or with a chatbot.
Staring at a computer screen or e-reader constantly can be both annoying and a real problem for some. Blue light from many screens affects the body’s circadian rhythm and ability to sleep. Those with brain injuries are instructed to avoid looking at screens. Conditions such as computer syndrome can develop, causing vision problems.
Combatting the Negatives
While some issues with digital libraries such as blue light exposure are unavoidable, some are already being combatted. Libraries are already beginning to blend digital media with physical space. The space could be smaller and less staffed due to the elimination of physical media, but still offer a place to work and a librarian to assist. Additionally, maintaining a physical space would allow those without internet access to utilize digital media while in the library’s physical space. Some libraries allow people to borrow e-readers and computers, helping those unable to purchase the appropriate technology to consume digital media. In a world with rapidly advancing technology, the digital world is inevitable. Libraries should attempt to increase accessibility as they navigate the integration of digital media.