Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Libraries in the U.K.: a perfect storm?

As you probably have noticed, I read a lot about libraries in the U.K. Recently, articles and reports have come out with ideas about how to save libraries (coffee + Sunday hours?, interlibrary stock, online services and automated lending?) ... Meanwhile, random dudes hand out books on the Tube, which libraries could/should be doing!). Manifestos have been written; lines in the sand have been drawn.

Libraries in the U.K. have been experiencing a schism, a term recently employed in an excellent article in the Times. You could also call it an identity crisis of sorts: the question is, in the words of Andrew Motion, "shhh and fining or Starbucks and PCs." And the U.K. public has mostly fallen into the trap of believing libraries to be an either/or: as my favourite source of info about libraries in the U.K, Perkins the cat, writes on his blog, "we shouldn't polarise the argument into books or not books." Despite idol worship, we are not a format (as I keep saying; sorry if you've heard me say this a dozen times before. Maybe I should get a t-shirt): we are a service.

Many libraries, or sections within libraries, will always remain a source of uninterrupted quiet contemplation of the weath of historical knowledge, a place in which you can enjoy a silent communion with the entirety of recorded human thought. Many community-based libraries have already evolved to reflect changing communities; we sometimes forget that beyond what libraries represent as object or idol, they ultimately belong to the people. These people are a variable, diverse, sometimes-loud, quirky mass of humanity, and each one of them deserves to be honoured and provided for in their local community library. The other option is to return to the closed-stacks, one version of history library, where the conquerers' version of stories is preserved and libraries are not of the people, but of the elite. Not that the taxpayer model of public libraries doesn't have its issues, but it's the lesser of various evils.

One of the major hurdles facing community libraries worldwide is the lack of use by the (sweeping generalisation here!) 16-45 year old demographic. I've seen this myself, often enough, being smack in the middle of that age group. I struggle a lot with the whole movement to "cool up" the library, with pizza and pajama parties and gaming tournaments, but ultimately, being a repository for books is only one aspect of libraries - another is being a part of community life. The generations coming of age these days are lacking (some would say sadly) the sit-down-and-read-the-book-in-the-library "quality time" we used to have: well, see, that actually turned some people off libraries entirely, so it was never really working for us. Now, we have opportunities to get kids in the door by offering a variety of programs: once hooked, or at least interested, we hope they will remember us as a fun, safe place to visit, and untimately pick up a book or magazine. Frankly, I don't think we have much of a choice but to meet kids more than halfway: as the Times columnist points out, "my son has been inside the local branch once, our daughter isn't even a member." We (and I mean we as a society, as well as we as librarians) simply can't afford for this to be the future. Libraries do gain some members back in middle age and retirement, but not enough, and fewer and fewer will return, if they ever came at all. So what if our children's departments sound like "a kindergarten with all the singing and clapping"? Isn't that better than "children should be seen and not heard"? (I used to make the old joke about the separate children's library entrances of yore - I'm looking at you, Westmount of the 1910s - "Or not seen! And not heard!").

Another major hurdle, in the U.K. specifically, perhaps, is the "perfect storm" of circumstances that have conspired to put U.K. libraries in a specifically horrid situation: the economy is facing all the ugency of the American economy, library membership and use continues to drop, not rise, during the recession, U.K workplace culture has somehow missed the "customer service" revolution that swept across North American libraries in the past decade or so, and the government is without a proper structure for library services (or that structure is missing a unified, competent team in senior management, anyway).

Finally, to balance everything out, we need to be awkwardly funding both small, specific community libraries and larger, district or regional libraries: the latter can necessarily have more of the "communion" factor due to sheer architectural possibilities, and are essential in supporting the local branches and providing/maintaining the idea of a library (as place, as repository) in popular, modern culture. Yes, Alan Gibbons, the "shiny city centre book palaces" belong somewhere, too, but Gibbons is correct in lampooning U.K. officials for not making a commitment (backed with cash) to local libraries within a "reasonable travel distance" from people's homes. Not that I'm chastising them for recently weeding en masse, but perhaps there needs to be a scheme, too, for keeping one copy of Dickens per ... what? 10 miles? Jeesh.

Maybe I will close with a quote from a good friend and colleague of my mother's. This is about faith, kids, but I think the idea applies here. Are we respecting the tradition of libraries, or are we being traditionalists? Are we building or defending dead libraries, or libraries that can live and thrive in the 21st century?

"Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.'
- Jaroslav Pelikan


  1. I think you write an amazingly astute blog, with cutting-edge insights into what is happening on the library scene (sometimes I think you're reading my mind). No matter what comes your way on any given day, you're able to put it into context. Keep up the good work. You're my go-to librarian for all that's happening in the endlessly fascinating world of books (and all the other wonderful stuff libraries are made of).


  2. thanks for your kind words, Margaret! I read and enjoyed your Carried away on licorice days!

  3. My fave quote from The Times' piece:

    “Downstairs children, PCs, upstairs good book stock, quiet -- off you go.”

  4. I am a regular user of public libraries in the UK: at the moment Bromley and City of London; in the past Walthamstow, Southwark, Hackney and Cambridge. Having also been a public library user in Quebec and Ontario, I can say with some accuracy that the public libraries here (like the ones in Quebec) have a lot of catching up to do. Opening hours, for a start, are poor. Sunday openings? A pipe dream for most councils, but greatly needed. The difference between levels of stock and service between councils varies enormously. Walthamstow was pathetic, whereas City of London is fantastic. Which council has better funding I wonder? I have yet to see one user survey in any UK public library. So many librarians are wringing their hands wondering how to save the public library- yet no one, as far as I can tell, has asked their members for ideas.

  5. Yes, God forbid we should ask the users of the library. Instead, they can write letters to the paper that we *also* ignore!