Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Some Simple Thoughts About Libraries

Libraries serve two main functions. The first is access to knowledge. It’s what Toni Morrison called “the superb, the supreme act of truly great civilizations” and I agree. I’d even go further and say this: unless every member of your population has free and complete access to knowledge, you are not a civilization at all.
And let’s be broad about ‘knowledge’. Let’s include all the stuff that might not look like ‘knowledge’ from the front cover: comics, celebrity autobiographies, novels and the like. (Though it does make me wonder what knowledge anybody could acquire from my own books, apart from ‘everybody is out to get you’ and ‘how to abseil down a skyscraper using just the internal mechanism of a laptop’.)
The second main function of a library is to provide a public space where people can study, sit, be, read, learn, shelter... pretty much anything as long as they’re quiet about it and keep their clothes on.
Now, I know that there are many, many more things that modern libraries offer. I’ve been involved in some brilliant schemes run by absolutely inspiring librarians (who are usually working with impossibly small budgets). However, to keep things simple for the time being, I hope you don’t mind if I lump all those wonderful, creative endeavours together with ‘access to knowledge’. In other words, it all falls under the first function of libraries.
But it does show that there are more innovative ways to give a person access to knowledge than just pointing them towards the right book.
And that’s what I want to talk about.
I want to split the two functions of libraries. There’s no inherent reason why they have to come together. Knowledge doesn’t have to reside in large buildings full of books. That was just the best way of delivering it when public libraries first came into existence.
Isn’t there now a better way of giving everybody access to all the knowledge in the world than by cramming as many books as we can into huge buildings? For a moment, try to forget all of your nostalgia about libraries as they are and as they once were. And just for a moment, put aside any attachments you might have to physical books.
Simply ask yourself this: if you were trying to design a system that delivered the entirety of printed knowledge to every person in the country, how would you do it? Surely you wouldn’t present me with a plan to build huge depositories for paper books and place these buildings around the country.
We have a better way of delivering information and we should be using it.
Please don’t jump to the conclusion that I support the government’s plans to close libraries and hack to pieces all the services that libraries should be offering. Of course I don’t. It’s barbaric and short-sighted. But only because they’re not replacing it with anything.
Up to now the opposition to the government has focussed on rallying people to borrow books and say what libraries ‘mean’ to them. Well, I don’t think that’s helpful either. I don’t want to join the collective moan to ‘save libraries’. It’s such a vague and unhelpful phrase that it’s almost meaningless. It spreads round the internet, recruiting people to the cause, but without any discussion of the functions of a library or any serious, practical solutions for continuing library services when, apparently, there is no money to do so.
I don’t just want to see library services continue, I want to improve the whole system.
Digitise everything. Google’s already doing it, so why don’t we turn something that feels slightly sinister into something wonderful? Deliver access to knowledge through digitisation and the internet. Some councils already offer online access to various reference books through library membership. Why not expand that to cover every book? (As far as I know, one council has been trialling it already, but only one.)
Yes, there are implications. Google has been digitising everything while seeming not to worry about little things like copyright. I’m not suggesting that. All we need to do is extend Public Lending Right to cover electronic lending. PLR is the payment of about 6p that authors receive each time one of our books is borrowed from a public library, but at the moment PLR doesn’t apply to electronic lending. Doesn’t this seem backward? It’s symptomatic of the lack of coordination of library services at a national level.
Everything you need to read could be provided to you for free online or on an e-reader by your national, electronic library service.
By the way, at the moment PLR is capped at £6,600 a year for each author. If everybody is getting their books by ‘borrowing’ them electronically for free then we need to have another look at that, otherwise nobody will be able to afford to write any new books.
For the economics to work we need people round a table who represent the government, Google, publishers, libraries and the Society of Authors. But I’m convinced it could work spectacularly. Don’t forget, we already have a system for national distribution of knowledge that’s free at the point of delivery, but in a different medium: TV.
What about people who don’t have internet access? That’s a problem we should be working to solve anyway, regardless of what happens to libraries. And don’t forget that at the moment libraries demand you access them physically, which is, I’d suggest, much tougher for many more people. (I’m confident that over the coming decades the proportion of people who can use the internet independently will rise. I’m less certain about the proportion of people who are independently mobile. Very soon we will have a very old population, all of whom are confident internet users.)
You don’t have an e-reader? OK, let’s work on distributing those. Every child should have one instead of a library ticket. Think that sounds crazy and expensive? One: it sounds better to me than schemes like Bookstart, which in theory distributed a free book to every child in the country. Two: in the long run, e-readers would be cheaper than the constant stocking and restocking of school libraries.
Put the library into the child’s hands.
Don’t forget, people at school see libraries very differently. If you grew up with the library as the best, or only, source of printed knowledge, a library feels like a place of wonderful riches. If you grew up with the internet, a library serves to ghetto-ise books. It keeps knowledge locked up.
I think this is especially true of libraries in secondary schools. At primary school, there are books in every classroom and quite often they line the corridor too. Books are everywhere. Sometimes this is a necessity of not being able to afford a dedicated library space, but I think it’s no bad thing if you’re never further than two metres from a book.
As soon as a kid reaches secondary school, the books are all locked away in a separate building. Librarians go to great lengths and do fantastic, imaginative things just to get kids to go into the library. They shouldn’t have to do this, but they do. Because for a lot of people – I would say most young people – libraries are intimidating. E-readers are not. Libraries are also the last place most teenagers want to be seen. E-readers take books out of the ghetto and into your child’s school bag.
So what about the second function of libraries – the public space? Well, if these public spaces no longer need to house every book people might want, then it’s a much easier, and cheaper, function to fulfil. How about more, smaller study spaces spread further across the country than the current library network? I’d like to see small, quiet study spaces tucked away on every high street, in every village, above shops and pubs, even stations and service stations: easier to staff, easier to run, easier to stock.
Of course, we’ll still need librarians. Who else can provide the advice and support – especially when it comes to books for children? But my experience of working with librarians in the current system is that their expertise is wasted. They are, in overwhelming numbers, inspiring people with brilliant minds, vast knowledge, explosive enthusiasm and a constant flow of ideas. And these talents are put to use a tiny percentage of the time.
If they’re freed from the antiquated admin that goes into running an old-fashioned bricks-and-books library they could create magic. They should be driving the whole system: websites and forums, drop-in events, consultations, community schemes... all the things they strive to do at the moment, and more.
Libraries are people – not books, and not buildings.
By calling out to ‘save libraries’ as they are, (which in practice usually translates to ‘as they were’ or even ‘as I falsely remember them from my sepia-tinted, idyllic youth’) we are blocking the path to a truly wonderful library service – a universal knowledge delivery system that would actually work.
It won’t need more money. In the long run this will be cheaper. Yes, cheaper. Better and cheaper.
But it will take time and, most importantly, creative thought. That may well be too much to expect from any government, but the rest of us?
Most of the petitions, articles or facebook pleas to ‘save libraries’ that I see are distributed by authors. Some high-profile authors have been making speeches, writing in the papers or both. Well, fellow author, as far as I’m concerned you are guilty of a shameful lack of imagination.
Why stamp our feet and throw a tantrum to save a Victorian system? Let’s put our creative energy into re-inventing the whole concept of a library. Less money? So what. I say less money can mean more reading, more knowledge, wider access. Let’s make something better.

Saturday 5th has become a national day of protest to support libraries. Please do support your library. Go to a reading, borrow a book. But while you’re there please also open your mind and think creatively about how the two functions of a library could be performed in the future.


Mar Dixon said...

But If you read any of the over 8000 tweets I received after tweeting Libraries are important because [fill in & RT] you would have seen that we recognize libraries are not just 'Victorian' buildings with books. They are hubs in the community. They give people access to the internet. They have toddler groups for parents. They have speaking books for the blind. Many already have e-books. They are moving with the times with very limited resources.

I won't speak for the celebs or for the other groups campaigning. I will speak only for the people who tweeted me with passionate reasons on why their libraries were important.


Jeni said...

"All we need to do is extend Public Lending Right to cover electronic lending."

But it does! More and more libraries are including eBooks in borrowing now. It's not completely nationwide, some libraries are still on experimental schemes, but it certainly is already happening. In fact, it has slowly been creeping that way for ten years now, mainly thanks to academic libraries. Not only thanks to journals, but also textbooks available in electronic versions. A university in Texas, US, started their study back in 2001 experimenting with lending out fiction eBooks (on eReaders provided for the study).

Probably 2007/08 was when the big push for eBooks available at libraries started.

Here's my county library's site: http://digitallibrary.norfolk.gov.uk

"You don’t have an e-reader? OK, let’s work on distributing those."

I must thoroughly disagree on this point. I don't think it is up to the government to ensure that children have access to eReaders (laptops are a far more necessary). EReaders are dropping in price and expanding format at a staggering rate. You don't need an eInk Kindle device from Amazon -- there's your phone, your mp3 player, your tablet computer.

EBooks will certainly become far more important and a part of children's lives, but, like computers, I think it should be something that is slowly adopted.

"One: it sounds better to me than schemes like Bookstart, which in theory distributed a free book to every child in the country."

The massive difference here is the comparative cost of books and eReaders. Bookstart is designed to get children into reading before they even start school, basically at ages that I would not consider giving my eReader/phone/tablet to a child.

Furthermore, unless you distribute tablet computers, eReaders simply cannot yet replicate the colour, feel and flexiblity of a book. When children learn to read, they're not just learning the words, they're learning coordination in turning the pages or lifting flaps.

As previously hinted, some eBooks on tablet computers replicate this interactivity, however, I'm still not letting Monster No. 1 play with the iPad. ;)

While I understand your later points, comparing the idea to the Bookstart scheme is simply not possible.


EBooks and eReaders do have enormous potential, and the digital format has already been adopted academically. However, they are not a magical pill. In my honest opinion print books will not be pushed out by eBooks. The two compliment each other.

So of course we need libraries to store those print books. ;)

Joe said...

Thanks for the great comments!

Mar, this is awesome. I totally agree, but none of the roles of a library that you mention is inconsistent with my vision of a new, digital library system. In fact, I think what I'm suggesting would free up money for all of those wonderful things and enable some of them to flourish!
Point to an existing library and try saying aloud "I need that building to be there, with all the things it currently contains, in order for there to be..." and then fill in the blank with the things you mentioned, one by one. You won't be able to do it. Toddler groups, speaking books, e-books and community hubs are all better served by remodelling the entire network into digital resources and more, smaller, public spaces.

Jeni, I'll try to pick up on all the points you raised. Apologies if I miss anything - do let me know:

-Some libraries are lending ebooks, which is brilliant, but authors aren't paid for these loans. That's what I meant by the Public Lending Right not applying. You can lend the books, but for some reason the scheme that pays the author hasn't yet been applied to electronic lending - yet.

-I take your point on e-readers, though I disagree. If we're concerned with access to books, then I'd love to see a means-tested system for making sure kids have access to an e-reader - but only if the online infrastructure is in place for the child to download free books.

-When I mentioned Bookstart I think I had in mind the scheme that distributed books to kids in Year 7. (What was that one called? Temporary brain lapse - sorry.) I agree that when it comes to kids just learning to read it's a different matter and physical books are essential. I'd love to see the money go in that direction - think of all the funds freed up by not stocking physical copies of books for adults and reference books! The space, the time...

-Finally, print books may not be pushed out by e-books overall, but I think they OUGHT to be in libraries (with the exception of little kids, as you rightly point out) - simply because of the costs and the constraints of distribution and storage.
Printed books in this context will become a luxury. A library service doesn't need to deliver luxury and can't afford to try!
Great points though. Keep them coming.

kathryn evans said...

Not sure I agree with you here - i think face to face contact with a librarian is irreplaceable. Last night I took my son an daughter to the library. Daughter has a list of required reading law books, son wants Diary of a Wimpy Kid, I need to pick up a book on teenage bedrooms I'd ordered. We leave with: pile of daughters books on order, an additional one she found on the shelf by browsing, ideas for further reading from conversation with librarian plus advise about work experience; Diary of Wimpy kid, book on horse anatomy that caught son's eye, further book on fossils that also caught sons eye; Book on teenage bedroom,s book on bathrooms and Book on Nazism and the Occult that may or may not inspire new novel in me.

I love e-books but I love libraries more - I think it's people that don't use them that think of them as antiquated, those of us that do use them, that rely on them, that love them, think they're doing a pretty fine job just as they are.

Joe said...

Hi Kathryn - thanks for commenting!
Wonderful that all of that came from the combination of browsing and face to face contact at the library. Brilliant. I think it can be recreated - and bettered - by the system I'm suggesting! I definitely don't want to do away with that experience, I want to make that available to everyone!
As things are, your discoveries are unique. The only way of someone else finding the same things is if they happen to have the same conversation with the same librarian. Put everything online and we can build a system of librarian recommendations that everyone can access, and even wider suggestions based on related borrowing by the public, similar to Amazon's recommendation service (but better because you'll have the added expertise of librarians behind it!).
The advice about work experience is wasted if it has to be dispensed by a librarian face to face with only the people who come to talk to him or her.
There are people who need that advice who can't make it to the library or who wouldn't think to start that conversation.
There are also people who would love to read all the books you've now borrowed but wouldn't find them because the route of recommendation, suggestion and browsing that you've followed isn't recorded anywhere for others to emulate. And finally, of course - those books are no longer on the shelves because you've borrowed them!
All problems solved with an online library service.
There would still be face to face time with librarians through consultations, chats, drop-in events - all sorts.

Robin said...

I find myself asking "who uses libraries these days?" A truly horrible question.
Libraries are an important part of our heritage and show that knowledge is revered and an aspirational imperative but in what format do we need them?
Without doubt children learning to read and enjoy reading need access to such facilities but what do the rest of us require?
I have not been into a library in over a decade. A terrible admission but true none the less. With the digital age my first port of call for information is the web and that will regularly direct me to where I can get a fuller picture of the info I am after. It is not unusual for that to be followed up by purchasing either a book or an e-book. So what happens to people who cannot afford such luxury?
How do we measure what a librarian brings to the question?
There is a need for this type of facility to be available to all. Do we need physical libraries or can we suffice with virtual libraries and what will that say about our civilisation?
I find myself dreading the concept of the loss of libraries as it will change my view of our country but that is a very emotive view of things. Yet I find it hard to justify keeping the physical buildings when we are looking at having to cut back on funding for schools, hospitals, etc…..

kathryn evans said...

Ok Joe, I get it - maybe I am just an old romantic, but it makes me sad to think that libraries. as I have known them, as my children have known them, might no longer be around - I just can't get past it - I am emotionally tied to the structure, the quiet thud of books being stamped, the reverence of the elderly browsing for their weekly read, the irreverence of the children kneeling by the picture book box or scrambling over cushions for a place to read while they wait for their mum.

Robin, don't make the mistake that, because you don't use libraries, most people don't. For me, for my friends, our local library is very much here and now - for a lot of parents it's a weekend marker, the trip to the library - it's not a heritage thing, it's not a historical thing, it's living and vibrant. Crikey when I look at the PLR statements of some of my friends I see cast iron living proof that libraries are being used.

If we lose libraries we lose a service that gives people freedom, knowledge, escape, information, friendship and a deep, deep sense of belonging. For example, our local village has a lot of Portuguese migrant workers - on the shelf, in the children's section, are a number of bi-lingual books for the children of these migrants. Libraries respond rapidly to community need.

I think our library service says as much about us as a nation as our health service does, and in my opinion, it is just as important. My local library has saved my sanity on more than one occasion.

Robin said...

It’s good to hear that people are using libraries. Of the people I know only two will use them, one is an author and the other is married to the first.
As ambulance staff my work takes me into libraries, admittedly these are in deprived areas but they are always deserted. Again they may be deserted because we have been called.
I cannot/will not imagine a place that has no libraries, it’s an obscene idea.
But I find I cannot justify the cost with the return I perceive.

I hope I am wrong.

Robin said...

To add a little,
What we need are true community centres. A place where all can go that also has access to books/ebooks, music, art. A safe environment. Somewhere that we can all spend time relaxing, learning and interacting with the rest of our community.

Jackie Morris said...

I have to confess myself to be guilty of a shameful lack of imagination.
While there are things that are sound in your posting there are others that just don't work.
Have you ever tried writing an essay? Do you remember the quantity of books spread around you open at different pages while working on a single piece?
Do you understand what would happen to the eReader in some households?
Can you browse the shelves of an Ereader andf find those surprising places held inside paper?
Can you read your eReader without electricity?
Would you not miss that intimate contact with a child of holding the child and book and turning pages together?
Have you ever been to the groups where mothers and children get together in library spaces and share books with their children, paper books. I know you can share eBooks too but the contact with words is different.
A library is an intelligent heart of a community. Yes, it is more than books, so much more.
I could write more, but I am a self interested author and need to go and finish a book.

NutmegAngel said...

I wouldn't want to use an ebook. Yes, in some respects it might be more practical for storing vast amounts of fiction, but non fiction still needs to be in book form. I use ejournals sometimes, but find it's much better to go to the library and dig around to find the original journal. It's easier to flick through an article in paper form than on a computer, especially where you're looking for smaller sections within an article (the searches never seem to work, and leave random highlighting all over the pages--might be a software fault, but it's very annoying).

There's something about a physical book in a way that there isn't to a physical CD or record. And staring at computers for too long gives some people (me included) a headache.

I'm in Lancashire, there's something like sixty-odd libraries. In fact, there's probably half a dozen within five miles of my house, maybe more. In order to save libraries, I wouldn't mind seeing a few close, as long as the ones left were expanded to take in the books that would be lost from the old ones. Or alternately, we could bring back the library trailer--the back of an HGV that was filled with books (and you could order in books to go in it too) and have a couple more of them. That way one library can serve three or four different locations, sitting in a carpark for two or three days a week. Unfortunately, our library trailer was closed about a year ago :(