Should books be shelved?

Supplied by the University of Johannesburg.
Supplied by the University of Johannesburg.

There is a thing that you put in your pocket, or in a moon bag, or a duffle bag, or handbag or even in a back pack, that you take with you everywhere you go – even if it’s from the lounge to the kitchen – that has made a whole lot of other things, and the people that made them, redundant. 

There’s no need nowadays for video cameras, pagers, wristwatches, maps, books, travel games, torches, home telephones, dictation recorders, cash registers, alarm clocks, answering machines, yellow pages, wallets, keys, dictionaries, radios, newspapers and magazines, and pocket calculators. And the one pocketable, baggable little device that’s got rid of them all is the smartphone. There’s a world of disruption behind every tap, swipe and scroll that you make. Is it, along with the Kindle, the Nook and the other e-readers, going to do away with libraries? Is the age of Google and fingertip information accessibility making 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 like children and the elderly, have been able to come, for free, to avail themselves of the guidance, the courses, the magic and the peace and quiet that enrich lives, and provide a foundation for learning and discovery. Are the smartphone, the tablet and the 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, rather than the active driving force, of change? 

Behind these questions, however, lurk many more. It’s a debate. And it’s a debate that goes beyond the emotive question as to 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, even if it does in our hearts. 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 are, and will be, 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 that this debate both springs from and generates. Be part of the next Cloudebates™, Libraries, shout books be shelved, on 18 September 2019 when a panel of experts will address these questions.

UJ is well aware that there are passionate views on either side of the question whether, and how, libraries can remain relevant, and that the question is one in which everyone will have an opinion. That’s why, at its third Cloudebate™ of 2019, in which this issue will be addressed, everyone is invited. Register for free to join this virtual debate at

This post is sponsored and provided by the University of Johannesburg. 

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