Monday, 20 July 2015

The future of public libraries: some thoughts from a library user

In this blog post, Dr. Briony Birdi presents a shortened version of her presentation at the workshop ‘The role of the local public library’, hosted by the Humanities Research Institute, University of Sheffield, 15 July 2015. The original presentation also presented ‘four future scenarios’ of public libraries, adapted from Hernon & Matthews, 2012.
The public library: outdated, or what?
This short piece focuses in the main on the future of public libraries, as I was requested to do. But before I do so, I’m going to briefly go back to the Victorians – what could be the harm in that? Have a look at the following two comments:
‘How…does an idea that was adopted in the Victorian era to enhance access to learning and knowledge remain relevant in an age when many people now have such access within their homes via the world wide web?’ (McMenemy, 2009, p.3).
‘The original reasons why they [public libraries] were introduced could be argued to be of lesser importance today, since literacy and numeracy rates are now much higher than they were in the Victorian era. Book prices have come down considerably…thus many more people are now able to afford books than they could even 20 years ago.’ (McMenemy, 2009, p.198).
I’m guessing that some readers will not agree with these two comments. Those of you who know David McMenemy will know that he does not either, but I have rudely taken them out of context, to selfishly make my point.
Please, no more hubs…
A second writer has affected my recent thinking on this topic: ‘A new, Orwellian vocabulary has arisen to disguise the significance of what’s happening. My favourite term is ‘vibrant community hub’, used to describe the co-location of the library service with other, wholly unrelated Council services, and to cover up the degrading and diminishing of the library element of the ‘hub’. Not vibrancy, but rigor mortis.’ (Andrew Green, blog post, 28.06.15). I must admit I have some sympathy with Green’s view. Not specifically with the idea of a hub, but with the unfortunate use of the term when a library closes and a community-run ‘hub’ opens. This is not what the Victorians intended!

‘Libraries are irrelevant’, and ‘we can all buy our own books, why would we need to borrow them?’ Whatever our background and professional interest, we have all heard those arguments many times before: in the press, from the politicians, even within the information profession itself, I’m ashamed to say. And they are all seriously missing the point.

But what is the point? It’s my view that in order to develop a solid future for our public library service we should stop talking obsessively about library buildings and whether they are closed or open, and we should stop talking obsessively about the books they may or may not contain. To explain what I mean I think we need to remind ourselves of the librarian’s core values.

Remember, we have core values
Core Value no.1: Providing equity of access. The public library remains a vital contributor to democratic life, through its mission of equity, freedom of expression, and opposition to censorship of all kinds. There is a national need for social and economic wellbeing. There is a lack of literacy skills among both children and adults. Recent figures reported by the National Literacy Trust show that approximately 4 million children don’t own a book, 11 million people don’t have access to the internet at home, 1 in 6 adults struggle to read, etc. etc. A lack of literacy skills in Victorian times has been replaced by a lack of literacy skills in the 21st Century. Reading is the prerequisite of all other learning and creativity – and we must not forget this.

Core Value number 2: Recognising both cultural and leisure roles. Giving children access to library services will help them to develop a broader world view beyond that of their own surroundings. Through the techniques of reader development adults can expand their choices and tastes. Reading groups, for example, offer an intellectual and social element to the reading experience and help to enhance community engagement.

Core Value 3: Supporting an informed citizenship. Speaking at the CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) Conference in Liverpool on July 3rd, Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty, said: ‘Many people have not even seen the Human Rights Act so they don’t know what we’ve got to lose. Librarians and information professionals can play a special role in helping people to understand their human rights; and libraries offer a safe civic space for people to hear about and take part in much-needed political discourse.’ And she’s right: an information literate community relies on the public library to act as a gateway to responsible and accurate information, and that need is as vital as it has ever been.

Core Value 4: Supporting lifelong learning. Public libraries offer an informal space for people to learn new skills and knowledge through texts and ICTs. Where else can you go to develop your learning if you don’t have access to formal education? This role is not going away.

So what were the points our ‘nostalgia trip’ may have missed?
To go back to my previous point, there wasn’t a great deal there about library buildings, and books certainly weren’t the only resource referred to. On the screen you have two quotes taken from Lankes’ keynote presentation at the national CILIP Conference in Liverpool earlier this month. ‘It’s not about the presence of a library, it’s about the presence of a trained librarian.’ Librarianship isn’t something you can just do without training, to be a qualified Librarian means passing a higher degree, usually a Masters degree and ideally one accredited by CILIP – and the nature of the skills and knowledge developed during this educational process is quite elaborate. The 1964 Public Libraries Act – still in place today - requires libraries to be a statutory service, but Paragraph 7 also requires the employment of suitably qualified staff – a point often overlooked in the current rhetoric. 

Lankes’ second point regards the books. ‘We need to change the narrative: the great damage to our communities is not that people won’t have access to books. It’s much broader than that.’ He also said: ‘We’re not just about books, we’re about knowledge and learning…we’ll use whatever tool is necessary to make that happen’. ‘We need to get over the idea that libraries are just about books…they have a much more noble goal!’
The role of the librarian has changed since the 19th Century, but the core theme of knowledge creation has always been there.

Some final thoughts
I started to write down some final thoughts on the future of public libraries, and then I re-read Ian Anstice’s editorial in Public Libraries News from 24th June, and realised that he was saying the same thing – only more effectively. So I’ll end with his thoughts, pointing out that they align with mine, on an optimistic day.

‘It is all too easy in UK public libraries in 2015 to get depressed or focus on the tasks immediately ahead of you and not further afield…But if one has the chance to look up…this is actually a most interesting time to work in the sector.  Libraries have never been [under] such pressure as now and so, counter-intuitively, there [has never been] a better time to try something new, to re-examine priorities and to… look at what the community wants and try to serve those needs.’

Grateful thanks to David McMenemy, John Dolan and John Vincent for their valuable thoughts on my original presentation.
Briony Birdi, Lecturer
Information School, University of Sheffield
Anstice, I. (2015). The best of times, the worst of times. Blog post, Public Libraries News, 24 June,
Green, A. (2015). The beautiful librarians are dead: academic librarians and the crisis in public libraries. Blog post, Gwallter, 28 June,
Hernon, P. and Matthews, J.R. (2013). Reflecting on the future of academic and public libraries. London: Facet Publishing.
McMenemy, D. (2009). The public library. London: Facet Publishing.

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