Public libraries: A long-overdue argument

I’m just playing around with these thoughts. Any comments for or against would be most welcome.

There was a report in a newspaper a while ago about a mother whose six-year-old had asked her whether he should put a slice of bread in the toaster “landscape or portrait?” I mentioned this to my ten-year-old son and he said: “He should have Googled it.”

I mention this because I am interested in how spaces and places change how we think. In particular I am interested in how new digital objects and environments are starting to change age-old attitudes and behaviours, including how we relate to one another.

And this directly leads me to a very particular place, namely public libraries and the question of whether or not they have a future. In short, what is the role – or value- of public libraries and public librarians in an age of e-books and Google?

Now at this point I have to put my hand up and admit to being wrong. Some time ago I created an extinction timeline, because I believe that the future is as much about things we’re familiar disappearing as it is about new things being invented. And, of course, I put libraries on the extinction timeline because, in an age of e-books and Google who needs them.

Big mistake. Especially when one day you make a presentation to a room full of librarians and show them the extinction timeline. I got roughly the same reaction as I got from a Belgian after he noticed that I’d put his country down as expired by 2025.

Fortunately most librarians have a sense of humour, as well as keen eyesight, so I ended up developing some scenarios for the future of public libraries and I now repent. I got it totally wrong. Probably.

Whether or not we will want libraries in the future I cannot say, but I can categorically state we will need them, because libraries aren’t just about the books they contain. Moreover, it is a big mistake, in my view, to confuse the future of books or publishing with the future of public libraries. They are not the same thing.

Let’s start by considering what a public library is for. Traditionally the answer would have been a place to borrow books. This is where the argument that libraries are now dying or will soon be dead originates. After all, if you can download any book in 60-seconds, buy cheap books from a supermarket or instantly search for any fact, image or utterance on Google why bother with a dusty local library?

I’d say the answer to this is that public libraries are important because of a word that’s been largely ignored or forgotten and that word is Public. Public libraries are about more than mere facts, information or ‘content’. Public libraries are places where local people and ideas come together. They are spaces, local gathering places, where people exchange knowledge, wisdom, insight and, most importantly of all, human dignity.

A good local library is not just about borrowing books or storing physical artefacts. It is where individuals become card-carrying members of a local community. They are places where people give as well as receive.

Libraries are keystones delivering the building blocks of social cohesion, especially for the very young and the very old. They are where individuals come to sit quietly and think, free from the distractions of our digital age. They are where people come to ask for help in finding things, especially themselves. And the fact that they largely do this for nothing is nothing short of a miracle.

It is interesting to me that so much is made of the fact that most things on the internet are free. Indeed whole books have been written on the subject of this radical new price. But the idea of free information is nothing new and when free public libraries were invented the idea was even more radical because of the high cost of books.

Of course, there is the argument that virtualisation means that we will no longer need public libraries – or that if they continue to exist their services will be tailored to the individual and they will be capable of instantly sending whatever it is that we, as individuals, want direct to the digital device of our choosing. And perhaps some libraries will do this for a fee rather than for free.

Costly mistake. This would be a huge error in my view, partly because what people want is not always the same as what they need and partly because this focuses purely on the information at the expense of overall learning and experience.

Some people have argued that content is now king and that the vessel that houses information is irrelevant. I disagree. I believe that how information is delivered influences the message and is, in some instances, more meaningful than the message.

As I’ve already said, libraries are about people, not just books, and librarians are about more than just saying “Shhh.” They are also about saying: “Psst – have a look at this.” They are sifters, guides and co-creators of human connection. Most of all they are cultural curators, not of paper, but of human history and ideas.

In a world cluttered with too much instant opinion and we need good librarians more than ever. Not just to find a popular book, but to recommend an obscure or original one. Not only to find events but to invent them. The internet can do this too, of course, but it can’t look you in the eye and smile gently whilst it does it.

And in a world that’s becoming faster, noisier, more virtual and more connected, I think we need the slowness, quietness, physical presence and disconnection that libraries provide, even if all we end up doing in one is using a free computer.

Public libraries are about access and equality. They are open to all and do not judge a book by its cover any more than they judge a readers worth by the clothes they wear. They are one of the few free public spaces that we have left and they are among the most valuable, sometimes because of the things they contain, but more usually because of what they don’t.

Of course, we could put a Starbucks into every library – and we could allow mobile phone use and piped music throughout too – but then surely what we will be left with are more global outposts of Starbucks not local libraries.

What libraries do contain, and should continue to contain in my view, includes mother and toddler reading groups, computer classes for seniors, language lessons for recently arrived immigrants, family history workshops and shelter for the homeless and the abused. Equally, libraries should continue to work alongside local schools, local prisons and local hospitals and provide access to a wide range of e-services, especially for people with mental or physical disabilities.

In short, if libraries cease to exist, we will have to re-invent them.

Now, admittedly many younger people still see no need to visit a library. Many, if not most, will not have done so in years. But this could be because they still see libraries as spaces full of old books rather than places full of new ideas.

But this may change. In my view it is inevitable that the ongoing digitalisation of culture will lead to an ever-greater integration of cultural institutions and public libraries will shift from being book places to places that curate our cultural and intellectual heritage. Libraries will thus become memory institution like art galleries and museums. Indeed, why not physically combine all three?

This, of course, means that the role of librarians will change. The idea of professional librarianship will fade and in its place will emerge the idea of professional informational and cultural curators and this will embrace a variety of different skills.

But let’s bring it back to why the physical space that libraries occupy is so important. Again, libraries are not important because they contain books per se. They are, in my view, important because of how a place full of books make people feel. Great libraries, like all great buildings, change how you feel and this, in turn, changes how you think.

So what’s my idea here? Two thoughts. The first is that we should accept that a library without books would still a library because it would continue to be an important community resource – a neutral public space – where serendipitous encounters with people and ideas take place. This, surely, is an idea worth spreading.

My second idea is that we should consider funding libraries in new and novel ways. This could mean libraries going back to their philanthropic roots and asking wealthy individuals to buy or build libraries rather than football clubs or art galleries.

Or it could mean getting governments to impose taxes on certain leisure pursuits that are known to provide no mental nourishment or social cohesion and use the revenue generated to subsidise other, more useful, things like public libraries or good books.

There is a considerable amount of discussion at the moment about obesity. The idea that we should watch what we eat or we will end up prematurely dead. But where is the debate about the quality of what and where we read or write? Surely what we put inside our heads – where we create or consume information – is just as important as what we put inside our mouths.

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16 Responses to Public libraries: A long-overdue argument

  1. Pingback: Richard Watson om framttdens folkbibliotek « Peter Alsbjers blogg!

  2. Jane says:

    Just a point on the last sentence:
    What we put inside our heads can affect what we put inside our mouths. Therefore libraries aren’t so much as important as fighting obesity – they are instrumental in fighting obesity.

  3. hupovoy says:

    I liked the second idea. although, if the library will buy, then we’ll have new universities or new monasteries. but I also think that public libraries will disappear, because people are afraid of silence and inaction.

  4. Pingback: libraries: A long-overdue argument « Y's Guide: SLMPS

  5. Jen Beardsmore says:

    Says someone who clearly has not been in a good library recently…. Great setting out of the argument btw.

  6. Pingback: Future Minds: How the Digital Age is Changing Our Minds… « Shamprasad Pujar

  7. Ian Anstice says:

    Excellent article. Sadly, in the UK, libraries are being cut at such a rate that it may be too late to save the public spaces that you so rightly consider important. Please see http://www.publiclibrariesnews.com for a tally of library cuts by authority.

  8. Richard says:

    I agree that we are afraid of quiet places! Does this mean we are afraid of ourselves?

    Need more thinking of where else we can place libraries or what else we can twin them with. Also what else can we do in them that sits with their aims?

  9. Richard says:

    BTW, I am based in the UK and know all to well what is happening. Very short sighted.

  10. Stan Skrzeszewski says:

    A rather romantic concept and very nice in some ways, but misses the point. In the printed book world public libraries had a real purpose. Lending books and other materials with a clearly defined economic benefit – sharing stuff. Being a neutral public space is good but insuficient in itself. E-Books are still out of reach for many so the idea of public access to e-books still makes sense, but may also be insufficient in itself. Public libraries primarily serve individuals, so although they do serve the community an build community, they are primarily a service to the individual. The public library of the future has to focus on service to the individual, and the public space has to be tailored for the individual. I want my chair and my corner and my service. The future is digital so the public library has to help the individual to use the new digital technology in a creative way. If public libraries do have a future, it will be by providing creative support to individuals

  11. Jaco says:

    With the proliferation of information (counting raw data and consumable format) on the internet from knowledgeable and the not-so-knowledgeable source alike (and the associated mass un-organised distribution and access thereof) – the biggest problem is making sense of all the information accessible.

    Libraries have the opportunity to become locations where information workers (librarians) provide context to the mass of information (digital and paper) and facilitate (localised) collaboration between those who access it, thereby reinventing themselves and libraries to providing a specific purpose in the (possibly in physical locations and online)

    Funding will always be required, but with a change in the function, the funding will be for a slightly different purpose than just to maintain a building and procure media.

  12. Bradley says:

    A library means different things to different cultures. It doesn’t need to be based on [paper] books. The recurring theme is a central, physical place to congregate.

    The future of libraries will turn to a university/open office-style set of computer terminals where people can work together on school work or professional work. In my local library about a quarter of the floor space is already like this, with 50% of the desks available for people to bring their own laptop.

    In Asia there are huge computer-game arcades of networked PCs where people play against each other. There’s usually a coffee shop inside, and they open 24 hours a day. I remember visiting one in Singapore and thinking that although you can do this at home, it was far better in the ‘arcade’ – even though noone speaks to each other. Just like reading a book in a library – you can read at home, but sometimes it’s just nicer being with other people even if you never speak a single word.

    Recently I went to Shoreditch House and it strikes me as similar to this argument. It’s a place where people can sit on a comfy sofa and work for the whole day in relative peace and quiet for an annual subscription (I don’t work there, and I’m not deliberately trying to sell it).

    The environment is nice – far nicer than an office. I see places like this being what future libraries are based upon.

  13. Carole says:

    Thank you for this beautiful text about library. As a librarian, I can only agree with your ideas and in our profession, it has always been clear that libraries will evolve…but never dissapear.
    I only realized recently that, yes indeed, libraries are one of the last free public services and that makes me even more proud of my profession.

  14. Anahera says:

    Great to read this article and to see the various comments regarding this issue of public libraries remaining relevant in this day and age of googlefication!
    It is vital that we continue to advocate for libraries in our communities as it provides a space where anyone from any background, age, race or creed can journey to anywhere in the world doing anything in the world – reminding us all of the need to use our creative imaginations to do the things we may never physically get to do.
    As an active library user, I love the way libraries have adapted to accomodate different cultural events and festivals – gone are the days (in the big libraries) of having complete silence… (although there are still quiet spaces). I’ve been to bright, colourful and very noisy storytimes, cultural performances and music events that would rival concert halls…libraries are evolving to meet their community needs and it’s encouraging to see an article that supports this. Get to your local library, it’s seriously the gateway to the information of the world!

  15. Richard says:

    A quick point. You could have a library, a search engine like Google or a computer with a rather large hard drive containing exactly the same information (assume all are infinite in terms of content). The result of using one or the other is totally different. You have a different mindset when you enter a library. Therefore the outcome is different even though the ‘content’ (hate that word) is different.

  16. Curious says:

    Great article.

    So great someone else decided to publish your words as their own…
    http://haysfreepress.com/archives/23987

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