Libraries still play a vital role
The humble lending library long ago broke down economic barriers to access to books. It may have been overtaken by the internet in democratising information, but a love of reading acquired early in life remains the traditional - and many believe the soundest - foundation for a fulfilling life of literary enjoyment and learning, whether from books or online.
While Hong Kong ranks highly for technological infrastructure such as fast broadband connectivity and penetration of mobile devices, literacy is key to the potential of a wired society for creativity and learning. But authors and book publishers are fighting for audience in competition with the ubiquitous internet, and this is reflected in a decline in borrowing from our 77 public libraries over the past five years. The number of items borrowed fell 6.2 million, from 61.7 million to 55.5 million, according to the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, while the population grew by about 250,000 over the same period.
Jimmy Pang Chi-ming, head of publishing house Subculture, laments the development of a "bad" local reading culture - "people just surf the internet with their phones or tablets whenever they are free". He lays some of the blame on our schools - "students do not read for leisure now but for school assignments as they have to fit in with the exam-oriented education system". He may have a point, going by the most borrowed English and Chinese-language adult non-fiction books last year, which were old Use of English AS-level and Certificate of Education Chinese exam papers.
The department says the fall in borrowing reflects a global trend in reading habits and library usage, though people still use the libraries' e-services for research. The decline of libraries is to be lamented, not only because they democratised literature but because of their importance to a reading culture. Hopefully technology, having triggered their decline, can be instrumental in their revival through innovative solutions for online access to books with safeguards for copyright.