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.

Random thought on the 13.30 to Newcastle

Today I read something Oliver Sacks wrote many years ago about a man with a severe case of amnesia. His memory was 30-seconds long. Sacks said the patient was “isolated in a single moment of being with a moat of lacuna or forgetting all round him…he is a man without a past (or future), stuck in a constantly changing, meaningless moment”. It may be a bit of a stretch but this remark reminds me of our present condition. We see and hear everything from around the world within an instant of it happening but we are generally unable to retain even a hint of these events for anything much more than a week. We are aghast at what happened last year but then instantly move on to be shocked by new horrors. We seem to be completely incapable of preserving new memories and are then bewildered at new events, despite the fact that they have happened before. I think this is what’s fuelling our present sense of anxiety and bewilderment.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose

A report in the newspaper today that a seventy-year-old woman (Dawn Sword) had died alone and lay at home for six months until her decomposed body was discovered. Reminds me of the opening lines of my book, Future Files, which was written back in 2006. Some things don’t change it seems.

Early in 2006 a middle-aged woman called Joyce Vincent was discovered in her flat in London. She was dead. Nothing remarkable about that, except for the fact that she had been dead for more than two years and her television was still on. How could this happen? Where was everyone? The answer, of course, was that everyone was somewhere else. London, like most major cities, no longer has neighbourhoods; it has collections of individuals leading increasingly isolated, selfish and narcissistic lives. Neighbours keep to themselves and people don’t ask questions or volunteer information. In an age where everyone is increasingly connected to everyone else through the Internet nobody really knows anyone anymore. We have lots of friends but few of them dig deep to understand our hopes and fears. The general feeling is that you’ll live longer if you keep yourself to yourself.

In Japan there is a social phenomenon called ‘Hikikomori’. The phrase roughly translates as ‘withdrawal’ and refers to boys who retreat into their bedrooms and rarely, if ever, come out. In one case a young man in his early twenties shut his bedroom door and played video games, watched television and slept for fourteen years. Food was supplied by his mother who lived downstairs, virtually alone.

The phenomenon is a particularly Japanese condition although nobody can quite understand who or what is to blame. According to experts there are somewhere between one hundred thousand and one million Hikikomori in Japan, caused by everything from absent (always-working) fathers to over protective mothers.

There are a number of simple explanations for problems like these and most are wrong. Some people blame individualism; others point the figure at urbanisation, technology, education or even government. The reality is it’s all of these but ultimately we have nobody to blame but ourselves. We, and only we, have let this happen. And if it’s like this now what will it be like in another fifty years? This might be a strange way to start what is essentially a business book but I think that it’s important to first understand the bigger picture.

Inspiration strikes!

Typical. I’ve just spent half a day drafting some material for a TEDx talk in Poland next month and had to junk the whole thing. I was planning, yet again, to talk about how architecture influences thinking when I suddenly thought no. I want to talk about gardening. This was probably a result of a briefing sheet urging people to talk about what they were most passionate about. Therefore the choice was essentially new ideas, old cars, wine, greenhouses or gardening.

Then the strangest thing happened. Out of nowhere it occurred to me that what I really want to talk about is libraries! So, librarians of Lodz, get yourself down to the conference center at the Technical University on Sept 9.

Help Yourself Culture & the Future of Policing

I’ve been away from computers for a week so I’ve had no chance to comment on the London riots, which is probably a good thing because, as usual, most people seemed intent on publishing without really thinking first. So, with the benefit of some distance, what was it all about? Was it a politically inspired demonstration or just shopping with attitude?

There are no simple explanations in my view. It certainly seems that while the death of Mark Duggan was the spark, combustible material had been lying around for a while. Hence, when things kicked off it caught the imagination of certain people with nothing better to do (school holidays and warm weather helped) and when it appeared that people where getting away with things (literally) this prompted many others to join in. Social media had lots to do with this (and the resultant clean up), but there were obviously riots long before Twitter was around to fan the flames.

Interestingly, various happenings in central London were either under-reported or not reported at all, I suspect because the authorities worst fear was contagion across tourist hot spots or prime real estate. Hence, a group invading a Michelin started restaurant in Notting Hill (the Ledbury) to rob customers at knife point was not widely reported, certainly not on the TV news. The fact that the Prime Minister lives in the immediate vicinity is, I’m sure, purely coincidental.

My main observation, however, is that while what happened was connected to poverty and race this wasn’t the primary cause. If it were, then surely this type of thing would have been going on for ages and would have a long history stretching back half a century or more (OK, it does, but I’m sure you get my point). People were stealing Blackberries not bread remember. Poverty and unemployment were issues in the 1930s and 1950s, but people didn’t fire bomb local department stores to steal Nike trainers or 42-inch plasma TV equivalents.

In my view, it wasn’t entirely due to a lack of parental discipline either, although this was a contributory factor. The fact of the matter is that many adults nowadays are afraid of their kids and afraid of what might happen to them if they try to instill some respect. I’m not sure if locking a kid in their room for a day would be breach of the child’s human rights, but a smack is quite likely result in a call from social services who, more likely than not, will side with the child. Teachers face much the same problem and, as a result, many kids act with impunity.

The main cause of the riots, in my view, is what I’d call a help yourself ethos that permeates many aspects of life in Britain and many other Western cultures. This is the idea that anyone can be anything or get anything and that you can do more or less what you like so long as you don’t get caught. It is connected to greed, selfishness and a culture of self-entitlement and instant gratification, where people expect to get rich or famous without really trying.

It is a direct consequence of rampant individualism and materialism and can be seem everywhere from mainstream television (take MTV’s My Sweet Sixteen as a primetime example) to city greed (Southern Cross being the latest episode, but the actions of certain investment banks shouldn’t be forgotten). The short-term gains are always private, but the long-term consequences are usually spread throughout society.

As for the politicians give me a break. How, for instance, can opportunists like Hazel Blears MP be taken seriously when she comments that such actions are wrong. This is the woman, remember, who was at the centre of the recent MPs expenses scandal. So it’s OK for her to steal things, but not anyone else? Making up expenses is OK, but stealing a bottle of wine isn’t. She’s hardly alone either.

One final thing that seems to be connected is community, David Cameron’s so-called Big Society (BS for short). It was interesting that in areas with strong Turkish connections, for example, the local community instantly rose up and defended what they had built, whereas in other areas the estate agents’ much romanticised local ‘villages’ were instantly evaporated by the heat of the flames.

So, apart from pointing out truisms like there are no simple remedies, what have we learned from recent events? Here’s my thinking:

1. This isn’t the first time sand it won’t be the last.

2. It is not a uniquely British problem. Widening social inequality is a global issue and heaven knows what will happen when one side (or both) add guns into the mix. Note, for example, that spending on guns and ammunition in the US rose by 10% during the year to April 2011 and that Wal-Mart is re-introducing gun sales into some of its American stores.(Do they know something we don’t?).

3. If people do not feel safe or feel threatened they will take things into their own hands. This applies to both sides (see above).

4. This has next to nothing to do with government cuts and everything to do with opportunism mixed with a lack of respect for authority and a feeling that perpetrators will probably get away with it. Having said that, if you remove hope from people, either through poor education or a lack of employment, you will sow the seeds of rebellion and revolt. Given trends like automation and the power shift eastwards we are likely to see higher unemployment in Europe and the US, so I would expect to see more of this type of action and I suspect that Britain may need more, not less, prisons in the future.

5. You cannot fight flash mobs and fluid networks, especially ones that attack more than one target simultaneously, with rigid hierarchical command structures. Current discussions about policing seem to be about police numbers, but bigger isn’t always better. Small units can be highly effective, especially when they are connected with other small units. The police should re-organise themselves around a ‘hider-finder dynamic’ and act more as a ‘sensing organization.’ A bit more open-intelligence would be useful too.

Why is anger all the rage?

Why is everyone so angry? Why is grim survivalism the current zeitgeist? To quote a leader in the Financial Times a while back, it might be that “The nice decade (for non-inflationary continuous expansion) may be behind us”.

In other words we are entering a nasty period where western economic anxiety is becoming a catalyst for all kinds of attitudinal and behavioural shifts. For example, the real issue might not be peoples’ anger per se but the increasing number of people and events that provoke this anger. This can range from traffic jams and bad customer service to falling house prices, increasing food and energy costs or someone getting shot in the head in north London.

You can see this anger already in the form of ‘Wrath Lit’ on the shelves of your local bookstore. But is the world really getting more angry or is it simply that mobile communications and social media are making more of us aware of incidences of anger?

Put slightly differently, the way to create an epidemic of something like anger is simply to use the word in politics or the media. Another explanation for the rage trend is that in many societies anger is a badge of honour. It is seen as a virtue. It is the individual being true to themselves and expressing their feelings.

The Future of Libraries

Quite a fun article on public libraries by Alan Bennet in the current issue of the London Review of Books. The best bit – the hardest hitting bit – is at the end and echoes the library work I did a while ago in Sydney.

“I have been discussing libraries as places and in the current struggle to preserve public libraries not enough stress has been laid on the library as a place not just a facility. To a child living in high flats, say, where space is at a premium and peace and quiet not always easy to find, a library is a haven. But, saying that, a library needs to be handy and local; it shouldn’t require an expedition. Municipal authorities of all parties point to splendid new and scheduled central libraries as if this discharges them of their obligations. It doesn’t. For a child a library needs to be round the corner. And if we lose local libraries it is children who will suffer…..the business of closing libraries isn’t a straightforward political fight. The local authorities shelter behind the demands of central government which in its turn pretends that local councils have a choice. It’s shaming that, regardless of the party’s proud tradition of popular education, Labour municipalities are not making more of a stand. For the Tories privatising the libraries has been on the agenda for far longer than they would currently like to admit.”

Map of Digital Distractions.

I really wish I had done this. It’s a map showing the hierarchy of digital distractions by David McCandless. At the very top of the pyramid is “Device failure” with “iPhone” underneath. At the bottom of the pyramid is “Any kind of actual work'” Brilliant.

You can see it at MoMa in New York.

Thanks to Lynda Koster for pointing this out to me.
More on the map here.

Adults and teens “highly addicted” to smart phones

A research study by OfCom, the UK communications regulator, says that children and adults are becoming addiction to smart phones. Apparently, 27% of teens use phones in areas where they’re not supposed to while about 20% of adults admitted to using phones when they’d been asked directly or indirectly to switch them off. 25% of adults and 50% of teens now own a smart phone in Britain.

The report also says that smart phones (as opposed to regular mobiles) are raising a series of questions about social etiquette and manners and are also altering work-life balance. About 16% of adults admit to talking calls on holiday while 33% of teens will use a smart phone during family meals. 40% of teens would also answer a phone at night even if they were asleep. Most worrying is the impact of reading – something I write about in Future Minds. 15% of teens say they are reading fewer books due to the use of smart phones.

Full report here.