What are libraries for? To the generations that have grown up with free access to local public libraries, this may seem like a stupid question. The recent library closures in UK and USA have generated heated debate on both sides of the Atlantic. Should we forget about libraries now that we have the iPad and Amazon Kindle? Should we force our children to look things up in printed encyclopaedias when it’s so much easier to search for things on the Internet? Should we continue to pay for a building full of books?
According to author and motivational speaker Seth Godin, libraries were initially just “warehouses for books worth sharing“. This at a time when books cost “about as much as a small house”. We’ve come a long way from that. Books have been accessibly priced, widely available and part of our everyday lives for centuries. There are, of course, regions of the world where books are still a treasured luxury but most of us in the developed countries have encountered, read through, and owned our fair share of books. Many of us have grown up using libraries. But when was the last time you visited one?
Some people argue that libraries are becoming obsolete. The argument about library closures always seems to boil down to whether paper books themselves are becoming obsolete. I think this is very short-sighted.
A good library is worth saving and a bad one is worth improving because when libraries work, they offer us much more than books on paper. You can also download free ebooks and audibooks from the convenience of your own home and pop them on that digital device. Good libraries have good librarians and good library assistants. Good libraries offer help for job seekers, group sessions for new parents and their children, access to valuable market research data for would-be entrepreneurs and all manner of things that don’t always seem at the forefront of discussions on the value of the library.
Whether libraries should continue to exist has almost nothing to do with what format the information comes in. It has everything to do with free public access to well-curated, well-organised, unbiased information; it has everything to do with libraries as part of the local community; it has everything to do with libraries as a source of entertainment that doesn’t presume everyone’s lives are an endless race to acquire wealth and possessions. Librarians aren’t out to sell you anything.
I can look up information from reliable sources via my local library’s online reference shelf. If I just searched the Internet, the same task would take me much longer because of the vast amount of unnecessary and unreliable information that I would have to wade through. Better still, when I visit my local library in person, the knowledgeable staff there know how to get to what I need in the shortest possible time and they often point out things that I wouldn’t have known to look for.
Librarians are information professionals. Can we really do without them in this age of information overload? How much more effective, stress-free, and simple would our lives be if we all had access to a good information professional?
Libraries have sometimes been accused of being ‘too middle-class’. It could be argued that this attitude contains the suggestion that knowledge itself is a bit too fancy, and a state of unsullied ignorance is in some way superior.
There are many things that are wrong with libraries as they are today. They need better equipment, faster internet connections, better staffing budgets and many other things besides. Some libraries are glowing beacons of civilisation, while others feel dreadful, musty and on the wrong side of a jumble sale.
Londoners are lucky to have The British Library which holds 14 million books, 920,000 journal and newspaper titles, 58 million patents, 3 million sound recordings and much more. It is possible to view rare manuscripts by appointment and research every topic under the sun.
It seems that someone should tell Brewster Kahle, an MIT graduate from California, about the British Library. He is attempting to store every book ever published but admits that he may have to stop at 10 million.
The trend for library closures isn’t global. South Korea is one of the most technologically trend-aware nations in the world. Yet instead of closing libraries, its government has just approved a programme for spending 552 billion won ($493 million) on opening 66 public libraries and 114 small libraries, according to The Korea Herald. I recently travelled to Seoul on business and on my last day there I walked through an enormous bookshop. People of all ages were browsing every section; seated on the floor or just standing in the middle of stacks of books, intently reading. I was told that getting a good education is a big part of South Korean culture but I felt there was more to it than that. There was a palpable air of hunger and joy and enjoyment that seems to be lacking in most of our UK bookshops.
The place where I’ve encountered the same feeling is a good library.
Although many famous authors have openly voiced concern over library closures, one set of voices curiously absent from the discussion are book publishers themselves. Why should publishers be concerned about library closures? Because people who love to read are likely to enjoy their reading material in many formats and from many sources. When Neil Gaiman famously gave some of his books and short stories away online, his reasoning was that it is entirely sensible to do so because it is a good way for people to discover new authors. The discovery of a new author usually leads to purchases.
It is possible for people to own a computer, an e-reader and some paper books. It’s possible for us to own and use both a TV and a radio. Video didn’t entirely kill the radio star, though radio no longer holds a central position in our hierarchy of news and entertainment.
We need to save the concept of the public library. I’d go as far as to say that we need to stop specific library closures — even if the library under threat is one of the less radiant ones. However, libraries, librarians, and politicians need to help the library itself evolve. There is a danger in all the pro-library raves and rallies of coming across as overly conservative, organised by literary Luddites and self-serving public workers. There is no point in hysterically holding on to a model that will never quite hold the same position in our society as it did before. Once we accept this we can find a better way for libraries to continue to exist, entertain us, and light the way for future generations.
The future library should have the resources to provide many more computer terminals than today, access to an even wider range of digital reference sources, more organised learning and group activities, courses to teach us how to find and use information; perhaps even hardware on loan. Imagine being able to check out an e-reader along with its contents. There should be plenty of old-fashioned paper books for people who prefer them. The library should be accessible to people of all ages, abilities, and social classes. And much, much more. Many of the facilities described in this dream vision are already provided in libraries around the world. We should encourage there to be many more.
So what can you do if your local library is threatened? See what’s available there. Visit more often. Take your friends and your children. Join an adult education class. Look up professional journals to get a better grade for your next essay. Research the competition before you start up that business. Find out who your local political influencers are and write to them about your library. Start a campaign group. Make some noise about the library.
I’d like to thank Philip Bradley for the permission to use of one his excellent library posters.