Old-fashioned libraries are what we need? Thoughts on the Battle of Ideas public libraries debate, 19th October 2014

I was very pleased to be invited to be on a panel discussing public libraries at the Battle of Ideas, held at the Barbican Theatre on Sunday 19th October.  The topic under discussion was “From Amazon to ebooks: are libraries outdated?”.  The others on the panel were:

Tim started off, with the argument that we do not need public libraries any more and that it would be cheaper and better to buy everyone a Kindle.  This was the title of the article he had written previously and he made clear that it was not entirely serious and was more to just provoke debate.  He described the evolution of libraries, starting off as handwritten collections then changing as the technology changed, encompassing first subscription libraries and then state-funded public libraries.  Tim suggested that all text will be digital in the next thirty years and that answers will be found on the Internet, rather than the physical. He said that public libraries may also be wonderful community centres but that was extra.  He clarified that he was just talking about the lending public library and seriously doubted whether the physical building is still the correct form.

I came on next, pointing out that the decline is usage has mirrored almost percentage point for percentage point by the decline in spending.  There’s been a 30% cut in physical visits and loans since the peak, with the same amount – inflation adjusted – being reduced in budget.  This compares to library usage in the US which has been static or improving in both financial and usage terms. I also said that this has placed enormous pressures on the service in this country, meaning that the trend present before of co locating services and expanding into other areas was used to protect libraries from councils under great pressure to cut budgets.  I also pointed out the great outpouring of public protest that closing or even the threat of closing can give, with many users being worried about the gap this would leave in their lives, in terms of having nothing to read, no one to talk to, nowhere to take the kids and no free space left.

The argument that libraries were required to expand into non traditional areas to serve the public and the needs of the council, went down like a lead balloon dipped into acid with Alkha.  She said that this evaded what libraries are there for and that the we should not be afraid of stocking books for their own sake. Alkha said that books have an intrinsic worth and that promoting a canon of high quality books will provide a knowledgable public capable of independent thought. She said that if people just want information then Kindles will do but libraries don’t just provide that: they provide knowledge as well. If a library just concentrates on best sellers and what the majority of people request then that was not fullfilling its main function.  If we’re just individuals who are there to adapt, then we don’t need a library.  She stressed that serendipity is important and that a good library provides an opportunity for discovering by happy chance and accident.  The reason for libraries was also to  provide a depth and breadth of work that would allow those interested to understand, for example, why ISIS is beheading people in Syria not just be reading one article or book but by reading around the subject.  She concluded that the best defence for public libraries is for them to be vocal and up front as guardians of  public culture.

James finished off the introductory remarks by saying that public libraries played an important role in equality and as custodians.  Like many others there, he had learnt much from libraries as a child and as a student which had allowed him to do better later on.  He was aware that in a world of increasing inequalities,  a public library still gives a better chance to go to university. He lamented the decline of reference sections and said that such a reference collection is important.  James also pointed out that the flexibility of public libraries is nothing new.  What is new is more open access to their space. It’s right that libraries can enhance new technologies and he had nothing against the book sharing the library with other activities. He concluded by saying that libraries defend us and that’s why we must defend libraries

The debate after that was very wide ranging and contrasting but here are the key themes I detected:

  • the importance of silence and quiet study spaces was emphasised. This was seen as part of the unique selling point of libraries that libraries are ignoring to their detriment.
  • allied to this was the horror of having a loud children’s storytime and other noisy activities in the public library.  It was felt that such things belonged in community centres and not in libraries.
  • the role of public libraries as the custodians of knowledge that may be lost. This included the ease of simply deleting or corrupting digital data. There was a recognition that a physical format safeguarded against this, although Tim pointed out that the Library of Alexandria burnt down in the end [although a recent article shows that this may have been down to budget cuts]
  • the need for library staff to encourage and tutor users to go furtherThe summer reading challenge was criticised for allowing children to read any book and not to ask them to try harder, to read things they would normal read.  Bookshops were seen as doing this better than libraries.
  • the need for book stock not just to reflect what people are reading but to reflect more what they should be reading.  There also needs to be sufficient funding for a good book stock.
  • a fundamental unwillingness among almost all parties to accept that librarians are the piggies in the middle in all this.  It was felt that librarians should hold on to the need for quiet and for high culture regardless of the views of politicians.  Austerity was barely mentioned, it presumably being accepted by all main parties, and so the dire demands that budget cuts have on libraries, and on the loss of professional staff, was waved aside as the fault of librarians as not standing up for themselves enough and losing track of their core values.
  • several members of the audience felt that they did not need public libraries any more and that they could get everything they needed off the internet, either as books or as answers to queries.
  • the need for libraries to encourage serendipity by not regimenting shelving too much.  The bookshop approach of having general sections rather than straight Dewey order was seen as superior.  The loss of the fierce but expert librarian who frightened children but got the best out of them was regretted by more than one.

The tone of debate during this debate, and indeed the whole weekend was, to my proletarian and branch library ears, quite elevated in tone and assumed a high level of education.  There was an emphasis on principles and philosophy rather than the rugged and, sometimes, far less clean realities that many of librarians, and library users, have to deal with on a daily basis  Far more worrying to my mind was that a number of the young did not see the need to libraries at all.  The need for public libraries to provide storytimes etc was not understood.  Although such things are taken for granted as a good by most library workers, they were seen as a downright problem by many in the hall and the reason for there being present in libraries at all not understood.  I gained the impression that those who supported libraries supported them as they were in their childhoods, and wished for librarians to be loudly and proudly arguing for their need to be about being quiet, cultural and custodial.

For me, as a librarian who agrees in principle with much of what was being said but aware that, politically, it stands no chance of being implemented, it was an initially dispiriting but also an instructive experience.  As a profession, many of us are needing to use the language of politicians to demonstrate economic value and ensure bums on seats.  Many present argued that such a way was counterproductive and could only result in the eventual ending of the service.  That ignoring economic realities would mean libraries closing a whole bunch quicker was not seen as a valid argument by many there. Indeed, at least one said that libraries deserved to be closed if they were no longer guardians of quiet and knowledge.

So, I found myself pondering a few questions about libraries at the end:

  • are any of us still employed, and in positions of relative seniority, still willing to argue a quality not quantity view to councillors? Are we missing a vital trick by chasing the next trend while ignoring what were once core values? Or should we, on the other hand, take a pragmatic approach to save what we can, running the potential loss of what many value? Should we go for PLUIO rather than Plato?
  • Have we been by chasing one customer base, been ignoring another equally valid set?  Is there any way of maintaining both? It seems to me that we can, with some thought, have both quiet spaces and the loud, quality as well as quantity. Are we by sometimes denigrating as out of touch those who don’t like the noisy popular stuff, alienating allies that we need? Or should we write off such views as the sort of allies that we don’t need and will do us more harm than good in amongst a decision-making class that understands the cost of everything but the value of nothing?

See also:


  • #1 written by Christopher Pipe
    about 9 years ago

    1. Those who (rightly) value serendipity in libraries forget that browsing online can also be serendipitous, though the happy hits will be different. Both ways of browsing are valuable.
    2. Storytimes in public libraries are not new. I remember them in the 1950s, and Eileen Colwell began them I believe much earlier.
    3. If free public libraries are abolished and everything becomes available online (fat chance!), how will readers afford the subscriptions to online periodicals and databases, the acquisition of new online books to be read for pleasure or information or to pursue an education or a career? What about the constant updating of software and hardware?
    4. Is it even sensible to make every individual pay to access resources needed for a limited time? Isn’t it more efficient to make things available to everyone through public libraries?
    5. Of course we need calm (not necessarily silent) spaces in which to study with concentration. We also need spaces that can be used to draw in those (especially young people) who are not used to studying in silence but need to discover the riches of libraries. That is why all but the smallest libraries need more than one room or separate area.
    6. A wider issue not mentioned here is the problems arising from government separating out capital investment from revenue expenditure. I imagine most people say “Why cut x when you are spending much more on y?” And the answer is “We pay for y out of funds made available purely for capital projects.” Well, if public libraries are not a continuing investment in the future of a humane, educated society I don’t know what is. This needs sorting by visionary politicians. (Do you know any?)

  • #2 written by Shirley Burnham
    about 9 years ago

    “horror of having a loud children’s storytime and other noisy activities in the public library. It was felt that such things belonged in community centres and not in libraries”

    Brief (max. one hour) Story Time sessions imprint themselves on the tiny ones and their parents. Remove the pesky children to the community centre and ensure that the public library does not figure in their collective memory? Ensure that no future authors or other creative people will cite libraries, browsing and reading for pleasure as their first inspiration? That is the dumbest, most selfish sentiment I’ve heard in a long time.

    “The tone of debate during this debate, and indeed the whole weekend was, to my proletarian and branch library ears, quite elevated in tone and assumed a high level of education”

    How nice. The great, unwashed public didn’t get a look-in then? We – the users – are fighting to keep our public libraries, but that is an irrelevance? Do not stick your noses in the air – Listen to the users, improve libraries – Yes – but do not become complicit in destroying them.

  • #3 written by Hazel Robinson
    about 9 years ago

    As a lay person, just trying to keep a volunteer-run branch library going, I wonder how these Grand Librarians can remain so removed from what is actually happening. In Dorset, the nine volunteer-run libraries are far more successful than the statutory libraries judged in terms increasing numbers of users and book issues.

    This is not because our volunteer-run libraries are silent and academic but because they are vibrant, educative, friendly, welcoming and always helpful. They believe in giving people what they have requested so they will come back for more – and if that includes Rhymetime, Story Hour, Film Club, Memory Cafe, Book Group and Tea & Chat, so be it.

    How dare the Grand Librarians say that library-users should be supplied with “what they should be reaading.” In whose judgement? Why should they not have what they want to read? We all know that it is reading for pleasure which brings about socio-economic success – and ‘pleasure’ is the operative word. What would be the point of filling a library with worthy tomes which remain on the shelves?

    The Grand Librarians’ whole way of thinking is skewed. Of course there must be academic libraries. Of course there must be properly maintained archives and sources of information. However, we, the public, your ‘customers’, just want to have a good read and to visit an exciting, enticing place – and what’s wrong with that?

    Has any of these Grand Librarians actually descended to the depths of visiting a small branch library? Surely not. The theory and the reality would clash too disturbingly.

    It is no wonder this bunch has been so useless in trying to save our libraries.

  • #4 written by Ian Anstice
    about 9 years ago

    Hi Hazel. I think there has been some misunderstanding. I was the only librarian there (and I’m junior), everyone else was a member of the public. I was arguing the same as what you were arguing, it was everyone else who was saying it was the libraries that had it wrong and we should be halls of silence and art.

  • #5 written by jamesannoyed
    about 6 years ago

    Sitting in the NOISIEST library right now, and most of it is from the STAFF!

    GET RID of these COMMUNITY HUBS now! They are taxpayers money wasted on employing these semi-educated left-wing idiots who gather around the desk and do nothing whatsoever.

    As for “encouraging reading” or “future authors” or some such? What a load of nonsense! That is for SCHOOLS to take care of. The infantilising RUBBISH that is on offer as “teen fiction” is indicative of the fact this country is raising a generation of morons.


    p.s. they are going anyway! Ha!

    Sick to death of this Blairite crap!

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