Nick Poole on what can we learn from the past to inform the future of public libraries

Nick Poole, CEO of CILIP gave this speech at the Library of Birmingham, 27th October 2016. My thanks to him for allowing me to reproduce it here.

 

I want to take you back to 1831. Britain in 1831 was an incredibly exciting place. In many ways it was the crucible in which much of what we think of as modern society was forged. Faraday was doing public exhibitions of the mysterious new force of Electromagnetism, William IV took the throne and the General Election that year represented a landslide victory for supporters of Electoral Reform. I should say that that landslide victory was only achieved thanks to the national protests organised by the Birmingham Political Union and that a decisive moment in this new world was the rally of more than 200,000 people which took place not too far from the Library of Birmingham at Newhall Hill in 1831.

Emerging from 80 years of the dark satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution, we were busy inventing the idea of a free, democratic and equal society. In 1832, we saw the Reform Act (known as the ‘Representation of the People’ Act) take democracy out of the hands of landowners and into the hands of every man – though tragically, full women’s suffrage was to take nearly a century more to achieve.

“we were busy inventing the idea of a free, democratic and equal society”

Our nation was growing. In 1751, our population was 7 million. By 1821, it stood at 14 million and by 1871 it reached 26 million. And not only were there more people, there was greater prosperity, greater mobility, the emergence of new industrial cities, new transport infrastructure and new technologies.  Indeed, this was the era during which the very ideas of the ‘public realm’ and civil society were forged.

And it was into this nation, a nation of opportunity and prosperity and ambition that the idea of a national public library network was born. On the 6th February 1831, a lawyer called Charles Henry Bellenden Kerr wrote a letter to the then Lord Chancellor and great reformer Henry Lord Brougham which included a document titled, “Proposal for a bill to enable towns of a given population to raise funds for the establishment of public reading and public lending libraries”.

“it was into this nation, a nation of opportunity and prosperity and ambition that the idea of a national public library network was born”

It was a brilliant piece of Enlightenment thinking – that the fuel of our meteoric growth was going to be skilled, literate people. That those people needed to be active participants in the civic life of their communities, and that they needed access to knowledge and information about new ideas so that they could go on to create ever greater ideas of their own.

“It was a brilliant piece of Enlightenment thinking – that the fuel of our meteoric growth was going to be skilled, literate people.”

So from the outset, the concept of a ‘library’ was not synonymous with ‘books’ – it was synonymous with the concept of a public institution that served those three purposes – access to learning, access to knowledge and a free and open platform for civic engagement.

So that is the lesson I would take from the past to help navigate the future – as we emerge from the early days of our own Revolution, the Digital Revolution, we need exactly the same kind of enlightened idea of the library as an open, trusted civic institution which gives every single person equal access to learning and the opportunity to find, create and share knowledge and ideas.

“So from the outset, the concept of a ‘library’ was not synonymous with ‘books’ – it was synonymous with the concept of a public institution that served those three purposes – access to learning, access to knowledge and a free and open platform for civic engagement.”

The formats may change, but that core civic and educational purpose has just as much vitality and relevance today as it did to that exciting, optimistic world of 1831. If we are to look ahead to the same kind of future that the people of 1831 did, then we need to raise our eyes from our immediate circumstances and be bold in asserting the kind of world we demand to live in and the role libraries will play in delivering it. “

  • #1 written by malcolmrigler
    about 1 year ago

    The need for library services to engage with NHS GP services has never before been so vital but the actual engagement of real live GPs with Librarians still needs to be established.

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