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.