What Are Public Libraries For?

Bedford Library - Home of my teenage youth.

Bedford Library – Home of my teenage youth.

I was on BBC Radio Wales this morning, talking about the future of libraries. The discussion, with Andrew Green of the Library of Wales in Aberyswyth, was sparked by the Terry Deary controversy. Terry has been quoted as saying that Libraries are a Victorian idea that have had their day.

It’s a bit weird talking for three minutes on the radio over Skype! I’d been trying to focus my thoughts all day yesterday and said hardly any of what I’d prepared.

Firstly, I think it’s great that Terry has actually started the conversation. We all love libraries and librarians. Authors, in particular, know lots of librarians and count many of them among their friends. Authors rely on libraries and librarians to spread the word about their books. We need the libraries to buy our books, but there is not a God-given right that authors should make a living off the back of ratepayers. However much we would like the situation to continue, the world has changed dramatically.

Libraries are buying fewer books so publishers in my little niche are commissioning fewer titles and we’re all going to hell in a hand-cart!

The last couple of years, we’ve been campaigning for stasis in the libraries. To actually say what it is that we want to save would be to admit that we all have different needs and different ideas about what a library is.

When I think of a library I’d like to save, It’s Watford (or was it Bushey Heath?) Library in the 1960s. A classic Carnegie. The children’s library separated from the adults behind heavy doors with shiny brass handles. It was a temple of culture – so grand, so important – filled with CS Lewis, Enid Blyton and lots and lots of books about space and science.

We were an army family, didn’t really know anyone locally and I only lived there in the holidays any way. But it welcomed us and made us feel a part of the community. I see this role continue in libraries today, giving unconditional help and support to all the blow-ins in the community. The Polish plumber, far from home, the newly-moved family, those on holiday or just passing through. The library welcomes them all without question. I also see it in the Families that come to borrow books for their children. Children need a continual flow of books to be able to learn to read. Learning to read is a really hard thing to do. I think it’s right we support the citizens of the future and encourage them to become literate and cultured. The library is also the first place where children become aware that they are part of a community.

I’d save the brash, new modern Library that opened in Bedford when I was about 15. It served fancy coffee and stocked Scientific American – what a great way to spend Saturday afternoons. The fact that all the good-looking clever girls were there as well had nothing to do with it. While I was busy being a punk, I secretly borrowed Bruckner and Bartok albums, slowly widening my musical taste.

When I left school, my education really began, I discovered fiction wasn’t just stories it was about ideas too. I devoured books at that stage. All that Hemingway, Fowles, Vonnegut and dear Colin Wilson, they all led me on to the philosophy department, teaching me stuff that was never mentioned in school

I’d save the Peterborough Library, another classic Carnegie, that welcomed me unconditionally too. I’d moved there to be with my mother, just after my father died. I was 20, I was a mess and I knew nobody. But the kind librarian found things for me and suggested others and got me started on a road of learning about art that a couple of years later saw me going off to art college.

If it hadn’t already been knocked down, I’d save my local library. I’d go down with the kids and bring home armfuls of picture books. We’d snuggle up at bedtime and read them all. My son hated books when he was born, but we kept working on him. Eventually we found the key to his heart – Lucy Cousins’ Maisie books were irresistible. We’d never have been able to afford to try out all those books before we found the one that got through to him.

We all know, with out thinking that libraries are, “A GOOD THING!” Many of my generation owe their sanity, good fortune and cultural grounding to their local library.

Without a doubt we need to preserve specialist libraries, local history, special and historic collections, these are the foundations on which our society is built.

The big question is about the local, public library. Has it had it’s day?

If local, public libraries don’t decide what they are for and decide very soon, then I fear they will be swept away, like HMV and Kodak.

I’m not in the middle of this debate, I’m too busy trying to save my own skin, so I don’t hear everything. But when I see a twitter stream about what libraries should be, what I read is a description of a community centre. I don’t think that’s enough. We already have community centres. You can’t have two buildings competing for the same resources.

Public libraries grew up out of the workers institutes, which were built and funded by those who knew that knowledge is power. They wished to better themselves and did something about it. They raised funds by public subscription, pennies at a time. They left us an extraordinary legacy, which we take for granted.

Carnegie co-funded thousands of libraries in partnership with communities – and they were communities then. Everyone knew everyone and participated in community affairs. London Ministries were far away and distant. It was Carnegie who backed and promoted Napoleon Hill to research and write “Think and Grow Rich”, the classic book for library-going autodidacts that pulled America, and some in Britain, out of the depression and set it on it’s path to the riches of the fifties and sixties.

Now we know it all and have forgotten how hard it was to learn all this stuff. There is an astonishing future ahead of us so we need to learn a whole lot more.

I think public libraries need to look back at their roots. Education and culture is what they were set up for and I think that is where their future lies.

Outside of libraries, we mortals have an image of a librarian as being a person who stamps books in an out. But librarians are diverse people. True, they are all a bit compulsive and like to neatly squared up untidy piles of books and paper, and the majority of them like cats (there are librarians who like dogs too!) but other than that they all have their own different passions. Fiction – non-fiction – children’s books – story time – maps – antiquarian books – medicine – marine biology the list goes on. It all needs curating and organising. Someone needs to know where everything is.

But in five years time, you will get a free kindle with every twenty litres of petrol. Already you get to borrow books for free with Amazon when you have Amazon Prime. In five years time Kindles will be waterproof and yes, you will be able to read them in the bath. Amazon will offer irresistible deals to libraries. Every rate payer will get a free Kindle, there will be no need for dusty books on Public Library shelves any more. This is not fantasy… this is the near reality.

And can people be bothered to tear themselves away from their 3d, HD, fibre, internet-connected walls and devices. What can the Library offer them?

To me now, at my stage of life, as a user, I feel ashamed to say that have no need to go to the library at all. My kids are grown up and there’s no sign of grandchildren for a while.

Actually we have a wonderful new library in town now. It moved to a more inconvenient place for me, but great for young families who are using it more than ever.There’s a hall upstairs, you can get a coffee and there’s a neat computer suite where I gave some YouTube classes last year. It’s a great place. But I think I’m the only person who has ever hired out the very well-appointed comuter suite.

I thought of maybe doing some open YouTube classes or drawing classes, but gave up thinking about it. The bureaucracy is awful, what with insurance and CRB checks. It’s much better to do it on Youtube, I reach a worldwide audience there. Who can be bothered to do anything for the community anymore? There will be some busy-body wanting you to have measurable outcomes for any course you are prepared teach. We are not allowed to learn for the sake of it any more – there must be module points at the end. I’d rather go and learn from a world expert on Youtube than walk through the snow to hear some one locally talk about the little they know.

Maybe Margaret Thatcher was right when she said there is no such thing as society any more.

I love libraries and all they stand for, but it is WE that have changed. We joined together as communities and used those public libraries to better ourselves. We’ve done incredibly well, and in the process we have built a new community, the Internet. That is our new public library.

I know Google doesn’t have a heart, but it works hand in had with all those bloggers that do, who sort and sift and recommend, doing exactly what librarians used to do.

I feel the pain my fellow authors and publishers are feeling. I feel the pain of librarians, being tossed about in the early warning waves of the Tsunami that is on its way.

Amazon and the Kindle and the Internet will do to Libraries what the iPod and iTunes did to the music business. Change is coming. It’s not a question of what to save but how to prepare and what will still be needed afterwards.

I’m sure the monks of old were desperate to keep on illuminating Vellum manuscripts, but one the punters realised they could buy a book cheaper and more easily…

We live in extraordinary times – human drama and civilisation are in the making. Tectonic forces are underway.

I love those old Carnegie Libraries, but I fear they will soon be part of the National Trust, with tearooms and shop in the local history department.

I think maybe public libraries will merge with community centres. Maybe their job is to rebuild the communities they have so successfully dispersed.

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