We Heart Libraries … or whatever

heart-libraries
We ♥ Libraries: one of many visual library memes available online

People who love books love libraries.

That’s a sort of given, isn’t it? Those of a certain age usually see it as a place of hushed reverence, a temple of learning where obeisance is paid to the written word, from where you might even extract some small portion of the hallowed manna to enjoy privately for an extended period of time.

But if, traditionally, the library has been viewed as a “repository of resources” then today that paradigm has changed, evolved, morphed into the concept of the building as a place to support the entire community. The library is no more: the buzz phrase now is community hub. This is a place for the community to link to a global community via Wi-Fi; a venue for groups to meet, socialise or conduct business; a centre for education and training; a site for additional services and other agencies to share. This rebranding foresees a near future when all libraries are to be regarded as facilitators instead of deliverers.


Anyone who regularly visits a range of central libraries will have already seen this vision becoming a reality in recent years: the coffee shop in the corner, the conference rooms off the concourse, the racks of magazines and leaflets, the comfy seating where you can browse the internet, the fun area where peripatetic visitors entertain the toddlers. It’s not quite clear how this transfers in practice to the lowly branch library, cramped for space and for too many years lacking the continuing investment that would have kept the premises essentially sound.

There’s a worry, too, that in this rebranding — designed to attract the younger generation and make the building an attractive and useful community focus — the library proper will be not only downgraded but also hived off to a forgotten corner where, for lack of visibility, its stocks will dwindle … along with choice and, eventually, readership.

Let me cite the English county of Herefordshire: go to its official site and a message currently tells us that a “temporary library is available at Hereford Town Hall while Hereford Library and Museum is closed. Items located at Hereford Library and Hereford Store are currently inaccessible and cannot be loaned or reserved.” Read that again. I visited that “temporary” library recently (it’s not clear how long the library building will be closed). I suspect that any large primary school library would put its pitiful offerings — those that I was able to view — to shame.

A linked document reminds us (my emphasis in bold) that the county must

1. Ensure access to sufficient quantity, range and quality of library stock and other resources to meet the general requirements and special requirements (e.g. audio books or large print) of both adults and children; by keeping adequate library stocks, by arrangements with other library authorities, and by any other appropriate means.
2. Encourage and promote adults and children to make full use of the library service; provide advice and information to support library use; and provide access to bibliographic information (e.g. the library catalogue).
3. Ensure full co-operation by any persons delivering the library service on behalf of the local authority and any other service delivered within the library area.

This all sounds well and good, doesn’t it, even though couched in the usual legalistic gobbledegook that so flabbergasts the ordinary person. But all this is preceded by one cunning paragraph — which, in quoting the vague phrasing of the relevant Act of Parliament from half a century ago, seems to interpret it in a way that suggests it need only supply the most basic provision in order to keep within the law (my emphasis underlined):

Libraries are a statutory service and local authorities have a duty under the 1964 Public Libraries & Museums Act to provide “a comprehensive and efficient library service” to local people. The meaning of “comprehensive and efficient” is not defined, though the act does state the main services that library authorities must deliver in order to comply with the “comprehensive and efficient” requirement.

When you go back and read the “main services” that authorities are required to provide you can see the alarming wriggle-room that the Act has inadvertently allowed. What exactly counts as “sufficient” and who decides? How “general” do the requirements of adults and children in respect of material have to be? When your library service is minimal it doesn’t take much effort to encourage adults and children to “make full use” of it, does it?

Don’t get me wrong: I think community hubs are essential to help encourage and maintain cohesion in local communities, and we do have to move with the times in terms of Wi-Fi provision and so on. But … is there not a danger that the centrality of book repositories in our local townscapes will be so downgraded that in demoting the library’s prominence we will forget that the word itself derives from Latin liber, a book? And that the book itself will in turn become obsolete?

To recapitulate: do you love books? Then — surely — you must love libraries.

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20 thoughts on “We Heart Libraries … or whatever

  1. I know its not quite the same, but when we lived in a very rural village, I loved it when the library on wheels came. It seemed that nearly the whole village came out to see what was new on the van and have a natter……. do they still have those 🙂

    1. When we moved to the countryside over a decade ago we were quite shocked (and embarrassed) to have a mobile library actually drive up to the door of our former farmhouse: embarrassed because we were perfectly able to get ourselves to a branch library 10 miles away! Many largely rural areas still have their mobile libraries, it’s true, and I’m all for them even though they’ve often been severely curtailed due to continuing cuts to services.

      However, I’ve heard niggles expressed about how the target customers — the elderly and less mobile — are disadvantaged by stops being too short (typically 15 minutes), too few in number and difficult to access. Fewer users mean reduced book issues, which means further curtailment, and the vicious cycle pootles on till the service is no more. I really don’t know what the answer is what with the austerity mantra that’s still been chanted at us by government …

      1. I must admit that was forty years ago, and they would park up by the village green and stay for at least a couple of hours. Of course thats when time did not seem to be an issue, or it didn’t seem like it. I suppose they have to pack more into a day now and as you say, less book issues and in the end it will just fade away….or they could visit industrial estates, I would love one to come to ours and be able to choose a book. Its not just the elderly or less mobile that can’t get to libraries, its people who work full time as well…. its just an idea 🙂

        1. Yes, I should have made it clear that it’s not just the old and infirm that might appreciate mobile libraries — those who work from home, those who are carers and so on — all are disadvantaged by reduction in services, all in the name of the chimera of a reduced tax “burden”.

  2. Really good points and our library has plugs in the base of the seats! All ready to go…
    And our libraries are also community hubs and have been for years –
    And your post had me remembering the quieter and smaller libraries of yesterday had just books
    And those cats catalogues !
    But completely different than today –
    So right CG

    1. Yes, I absolutely agree that everything has to change and evolve, and I welcome shiny bright new premises and the range of services on offer in them. I just don’t want to see the status of books go the way that video and cassette tapes have gone, that is, become redundant or a dusty exhibit in a museum (if indeed public museums themselves don’t become a victim of cuts).

  3. I wonder if there are any kids these days who’ve had a life-changing experience when they first visit a library. It’s something you quite often read about with older writers who grew up in a bookless house. Somehow it’s hard to imagine the same experience via computer access at the local library.

    1. I think the nerdy minority (1%? 10%?) will always prize real books, and I know quite a few parents (mostly middleclass, it’s true) who still read bedtime stories to their kids or take them to the library. It’s important to introduce them young, isn’t it, and make books a normal experience in their lives.

      My heart does sink, though, when I see kids from our local high school streaming past the public library after school, who only step around the back of the building to join a smoking party but never make it indoors. It’s this generation that we have to find a way to engage. Maybe now the school is about partner the library service and take over the running of the building there’ll be some positive change. (If they know there’s free WiFi available do you think that’d encourage them? 🙂 )

  4. Pingback: We Heart Libraries … or whatever — calmgrove – Earth Balm Music

  5. It is good that they continue – albeit in a contracted form – but as you say, cram too many play areas, coffee shops and computer interfaces into a small space and where will they put the books? And we’re back to having a government that believes every service has to make a profit to warrant funding – why don’t they value giving people who couldn’t afford to buy books access to them? You can’t put a value on connection and bringing reading and pleasure to people

    1. I second all that you say, Lynn, in spades. I remember when the initiative called Investing in People first started, when it seemed to be a recognition of the fact that if you look after people so much more accrues from that investment, a gain which you can’t really measure.

      Sadly, it soon developed into a box-ticking exercise in which the old reactionary mindset was still dominant. They forgot that happy people are more creative, more committed and more of an asset than those whose noses are kept to the grindstone.

      I believe that books, as well as the arts and music and all those other manifestations of true culture, are essential in a modern world if we’re not to lose our humanity and become mere pawns in the hands of the rich and powerful, those who have sold their souls to Mammon. Grrrr

      1. AS you say, no recent government has proved they value the happiness of their citizen enough to try to improve the quality of their lives – at least not the poorer, powerless citizens. The only people who have benefitted in recent years are those who already had money. Did you watch the Jacques Peretti documentaries on the BBC about the super rich and why they’re drawn to invest in the UK? How we were sold the lie that having them buy most of our big city properties was good for the nation? Sobering stuff

  6. I am horrified that a place like Hereford has closed its library and museum which was very good. I feel like that should not have the right to do this. Perhaps it should be challenged in the courts! My daughter says there is nowhere for her to go for books now other than the art college library which she can still visit even though she has finished there now, but that library is very specialist and in some ways has less to discover for her.

    1. An online statement says that “Hereford Library and Museum is closed temporarily due to the discovery of trace levels of asbestos found in the building as a result of planned building works,” and that a temporary library has been set up at the Town Hall with a limited selection (as I observed myself on a recent visit). How long this state of affairs will go on is anybody’s guess.

      Herefordshire’s plans for severely reducing their library provision was, I understand, being challenged in the courts but, again, I don’t know what outcome if any has resulted. It’s all a mess; and it’s hard not to blame political dogma for the retrograde economic and cultural situation we find ourselves in.

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