A vision for public libraries

The following is in response to an article by Tim Coates which asks what reason libraries have for existing.


“Hi Tim. It’s true that one cannot go along doing something simply because it has gone on before. My reasons for a public library service will be different to everyone else but I offer them up here for criticism:

1) Libraries provide an essential service for those marginalised by society. I include in this the lonely, the unemployed, those with mobility issues, even those with IT access issues. In addition, we are the place where people go when they have no place. A civilized society cares for all its citizens. Libraries are a vital part in this. Summary: Social Welfare.

2) Libraries provide a vital place for children to learn books are for fun, not just for education. We provide the space to lie down with a teen book. We provide the lively storytime with a drum to bang and a rhyme to learn. We provide the helpful voice suggesting the next thing to read. We are ambassadors for fun reading into schools, for parents, for the street child who comes into the library in search of warmth. Summary: Literacy.

3) We provide free provision of that computer vital to apply for the available-only-on-the-internet job. We provide the printer to print the CV. We provide the newspaper that has the vacancy. We provide the assistance for those who cannot spell and who have lost the confidence to apply one more time. Summary: Employment.

4) We provide the space for dance, for artwork, for the author to visit and the local society to advertise. We provide crayons and paper. We provide the book on the Artist and the colour printer for the poster. We provide the space for the homeless author to write. Summary: Culture.

5) We provide the book on the illness. The internet article on the mysterious bump. The helpdesk from the local NHS Trust and the mental health group that by reading aloud to eachother learn that they are still part of the human race. We provide the book on coping with stopping smoking. Summary: Health.

6) We provide unbiased and neutral spaces, newspapers of all political views. A shop that is not a shop where people can sit and do what they want with no-one demanding they buy anything. A place to research and, yes, a place to rant. Summary: Democracy.

7) We provide the computer and the printer and the fax and the workspace and the wifi. We provide the skilled assistance and the heating and the space. Summary: Digital inclusion, Business Development.

You will laugh and say that I overstate the case. That this is an ideal world and not reality. That we lost the way some time ago. That I kid myself. I would say that you asked for reasons for what we should be and not a description of what are. I will say that I limited myself to just seven reasons because I wanted to keep ten in reserve.

You will say that we are jack of all trades and we need to concentrate on the one resource we were indubitably set up to provide. I will shout from the rooftops that we provide what we need to provide because we serve the community and society without price tag. We are the service without portfolio. We are the third space.

You will say the evil lazy librarians have lost their way. I will say that most haven’t. I will say that the vision is that we provide skilled services and have the training and manpower to do it.

It’s the reality that needs to change, not the vision. The more people with the vision, the more the decision makers will listen.”

This post was then criticised for not concentrating on books.  This was my answer:

Books are of course the vital component of any library. I came into the profession because I love them and that love is proclaimed to probably thousands (if you take into account school assemblies, WIs, other groups, random people in supermarket who ask me if their books is in) each year.

I did not mention the book because one does not mention the obvious. I was, in marketing terms, offering the sizzle and not the sausage.

But look again at what I said:
1) Social Welfare. We provide books for those who cannot afford them. We provide free escapes from reality to worlds better, more romantic or just plain different. Where the acting is perfect and you can read the character’s thoughts. We provide escape in ten thousand rectangular items for the depressed, the weary, the bored, the young. Summary: Books.
2) Literacy. Nothing on this point could be done without books. They are the start and the end. The storyteller with the drum, the teenager with the book in the corner, the school assembly where I wave around the latest books and extoll how great Horrid Henry is and how, when you’ve read him, there’s a thousand more. Summary: Books
3) Employment. We provide the book on CVs, the section on careers, the Dummies guide to Computers. Summary: Books.
4) Culture. Books are to culture what water is to the Sea. The book on dance, that local society I was thinking of was the Local History one, the Art section … Summary: Books.
5) Health. We have a health section, it has books in it. Summary: Books.
6) Democracy. We provide books of all views and nones, histories and religions, biographies and demolition jobs. The space to read them and the book on how to start your on political party. The guide to citizenship so the immigrant can vote. Summary: Books.
7) Digital Inclusion, Business Development. We provide the shelves of Dummy Guides and Visual Guides. We provide books on business plans and directories of businesses. Summary: Books

Books are in everything I wrote but they are not, and never have been, dead objects on shelves. They are the escape and the life of each community and each person with the will to read. They are the tool that makes that child sing.

My vision is your vision. I also believe in quiet spaces and in reference desks and rows of rows of shelves. But libraries are so much more than that. A librarian serves everyone and sees all the aspects of the library. A library should be big enough to accept other uses of the library other than a book depository. Because libraries were never about that … and if they are then that is a reason they are declining.

Putting the life into a library does not kill it.

Another criticism was that, as described, a volunteer or any passing nice person could do the job.  This was the response:

A librarian is neutral. He or she treats all the same and at all the same importance. I keep businessmen waiting while I serve the child. The child has equal call on my time.

I keep the Christian waiting while I serve the Sikh. I serve the Muslim and then I serve the Atheist.

The bookstock does the same. The library does the same.

This neutrality goes beyond that of the shop or the church. A library does not want your money and it does not want you to convert. A library wants to help. It even goes beyond that of a social worker. A library does not actually push to recover or change your ways.

We provide the tools but we do not judge. This neutrality should be taught (remember it is my vision, not necessarily the reality) to all who work in libraries. A volunteer, a priest, a social worker all have other motives. We don’t … and by not having can perhaps serve the best of all.

The other stuff needs also be learnt. One does not go into a school library unprepared. One does not do a rhymetime on the hoof. One cannot recommend the next book to anyone with no knowledge of books. One cannot help on the computers with no knowledge of IT. The list goes on. All this needs to be learnt and it needs to be learnt at a high level. Or we lose. The library loses. The child and the adult and the whatever loses as well of course.

So, we need to train our staff to a high level. We need to look at the realities of what libraries are and train our staff in them. Not what they were used for thirty years ago but what they are used for now. Library staff need to be ambassadors for their service and for all the good it can give. Some forget this over the years.

My vision is they are not given the chance. That the skills are there, there from the beginning and are regularly checked and updated. Because, otherwise, yes, anyone can do the job. And they do, but only when – and you know, Tim, I agree with you on the basics of what you said – we do not communicate the wonders that libraries do and the need for trained library staff to do it.

I do not intend this to portray these comments as perfect or as the way forward.  They were my response to a provocative post and were written quickly and with no special research.  They can be used as a springboard, a joke or a dire warning to others, I don’t mind.  However, make sure if you’re a librarian to have your own vision and that you can explain it to the politicians and to the user because, if you can’t, what are you doing in your job? It’s too important just to be any old job. You know that, make them know it too.

To everyone with an interest, I would say, go to a  well-resourced public library, spend some time in there with your eyes open and your mind alert and the vision may come to you.

  • #1 written by darren smart
    about 11 years ago

    Superb summary of what libraries are really for. Books (& IT) are our tools but the paid, trained staff are the artisans who use them to help people reshape their lives for the better

  • #2 written by @LibraryWeb
    about 11 years ago

    That is very much a functional and reductionist approach, which will not survive in the times of change we live (you can tell I’ve been eating a New Librarianship lecture for breakfast #newlib 😉

    • #3 written by Ian Anstice
      about 11 years ago

      What would be your suggestions of the New Librarianship school? I am curious.

  • #4 written by Glyn Sutcliffe
    about 6 years ago

    Libraries are much simpler than that. They form an open ended contract between provider and user. The provider supplies structured access to the sources and the user decides how to use that structured access. The rest is a dialogue between provider and user. This is too elementary for many to grasp.

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