How long will libraries look like this?bobistraveling (Flickr)

A world without libraries may seem inconceivable to those of us who spend a worryingly high number of our waking hours hidden away in one, yet could that be the way we’re heading? With countless digitisation projects in both local and university libraries across the country, libraries might seem to be making themselves obsolete as we increasingly log onto their resources from the comfort of our own homes.

Yet to view it solely from this angle would be to ignore our privilege – 20 per cent of the population cannot access digital media from their homes. Thus libraries serve their purpose not only as hideaways for harried students frantically trying to escape the temptations of Netflix and sleep that lurk in their rooms, but as increasingly essential promoters of digital literacy. As digitisation sweeps across the nation’s libraries, they are becoming better equipped to teach people how to use computers. Just like when libraries were campaigners against adult illiteracy, now they help so-called ‘technological dinosaurs’ come to grips with the technology that pervades the twenty-first century.

At the same time, they provide schoolchildren who may not have access to a computer at home somewhere to access the same pop culture and social media their wealthier peers consume at home. This was pointed out by the government’s 2015 ‘Independent Library Report for England’, which, in light of increasingly exhaustive cuts to library funding, sought to identify ways in which local libraries could adapt. No suggestions were quite as extreme as a move recently taken by a library in Finland: installing a karaoke booth. One of the three major recommendations established by the report was to provide national digital resources for libraries.

Of course, there are many advantages to digital resources. As an English student, I can find out the history of a word’s usage with a few clicks on the OED’s website, flick through scans of some of the first books ever printed in England, and download countless free classics on my Kindle, all thanks to digitisation projects. Nevertheless, there are some things that a digital image simply cannot reproduce. This point became strikingly clear to me when, at the beginning of this term, I visited the Colour exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Having looked at medieval manuscripts online, I was filled with an underlying feeling of dread about embarking on the medieval literature module this term. I couldn’t make out the words, and even when reading transcriptions of the manuscripts many words were still indecipherable. Yet walking through the museum looking at original medieval and early modern manuscripts, I couldn’t help but feel the dread being replaced by wonder. The vivid colours and delicate gold leaf captivated me in a way online scans just never could.

The early modern world supplemented printed works with vibrant illustrations - can this be replaced by new technologies?Kelly McCarthy (Flickr)

But what about the physical space? Libraries are valued not only for the items they contain, but also for the space between them where desks and armchairs can be nestled. Could this, too, be replaced by the digital world? Armed with noise-cancelling headphones and a laptop loaded up with one of the many websites providing hours-long tracks of sound effects mimicking the experience of being in a library (footsteps, pages turning, even the occasional cough), we can now attempt to recreate libraries in our student rooms. However, there is something comforting about being surrounded by other people who are also concentrating on their work. So, could a quiet room devoid of books but well equipped with tables and chairs do the job? This might not be such a drastic change from some of the library workspaces we already have – the reading room in the UL, for example, is more of a working space than a storeroom for books, as the number of desks outnumber the bookshelves around the walls. In fact, far from being the backwards, overly traditional place we tend to accuse it of being, the University is being surprisingly progressive when it comes to its libraries. Since June 2010, a £1.5 million digitisation programme has been underway, creating the Cambridge Digital Library. On a more practical basis, you need only walk a few steps into the UL to see the cabinets containing the card catalogue which is not online in the form of iDiscover.

So where does all this leave Cambridge, with over 100 libraries across all the colleges and departments? Digitisation seems unlikely to slow down; yet so far, it seems to be supplementing the physical resources libraries provide, rather than replacing them. I can still request that my college library order in a physical copy of a book I need, even if it’s available as an ebook. If I want to, I can go search through the countless journals in the UL to find that one article I need instead of just clicking on the link on iDiscover. I can browse the library shelves for interesting-looking books on a certain topic, finding gems I wouldn’t come across if I solely used online catalogues. Numerous studies have shown that we read faster and remember more when using actual paper rather than screens. In light of this, it seems unlikely that books will soon be a thing of the past. I, for one, will continue to enjoy the smell of old books, the feel of their spines, and the whisper of their pages