Late last year, which had seen some of the most sweeping cuts ever seen to anything linked with public services in the light of ‘austerity measures’ by the government. Southwark Council in South London announced a flagship library, a ‘Super Library’ no less. Representing £1.4m, it was to be a library as we know it, but would also be the “shape of libraries to come”, according to a soundbite from a councilor. The architect-designed building (er, are any not?) would also host performances and courses, and may well run on reduced hours and with volunteer support. Its use would be otherwise just like other libraries across the country – borrowing books, using computers and looking for jobs.
If you detect a slight wariness in my tone, it is because I do not believe that a physically eye-catching monolith will make much difference in the long run. It is the uses to which libraries are put and our attitude towards them which will secure their future. These uses must be of cultural value to the community, as well as simply making up for lack of other provision. Libraries are social opportunities, and ‘social’ is an immensely misunderstood and troublesome facet these days.
Why, for instance, has the library become an unofficial jpb centre? Is this because the actual job-seeking services are inadequate? Why are computers so often the reason people go to libraries? Are publicly available facilities are non-existent elsewhere in the community? Some councils have re-sited other services to their library spaces to save money, like one-stop shops, citing honourable reasons no doubt, but missing the point that it devalues the status of the library. Why do libraries have to be other things they were not originally designed to be?
One might argue that progress is one factor. Liverpool Libraries allow some books to be loaned electronically to Kindles etc. Now an ex-boss of a high street chain of bookstores has pledged to give money to save libraries as he launches an eBook rental service. This is a valid extension of services, moving with the times and still related to literature and books. Imagine book clubs based on library-loaned, prepared Kindles, where the type face can be enlarged for poor eyesight and all someone needs to do is turn it on and swipe the pages. A weekly reason for people to gather together to share an appreciation of the same thing and to gain insights into others’ views. Let’s face it, even children can handle a Kindle, and with gentle interactivity, there is a fantastic opportunity for bringing back shared reading activities using simple and affordable technology. And all this kind of thing can take place in a small, quiet space. If other facilities for comfort and and refreshment are available on site, then there is no reason why people will not enjoy their experience enough to come back again week after week.
Some argue that computers are about information, as are books. Agreed, but not in the same way. Computers are a tool as well as a route to leisure activities, but are in the main individual and personal in their interactive nature (certainly int he context of those in libraries), whereas books can be shared easily, mutually appreciated and handled, leafed-through, passed on, discussed, enjoyed and assimilated in a far more physical way. We have seen funding for libraries dwindle in recent years, meaning less of a choice of books and more money spent on gimmicky and expensive kit that does not always attract the right kind of people to these spaces.
A close relative of mine has recently decided to take redundancy after 30 years in libraries. A victim of the cuts, she has decided to cut and run, disillusioned with what use her experience and expertise will be valued for should she stay, if she were to get the job that three other colleagues are applying for. This scenario represents a huge waste of human capital across the country. A good librarian, with a lifetime of helping people find information, is a valuable commodity, yet these skills are not valued any more. The cuts in services have become illogical means of simply squeezing a budget line, rather than a strategy for utilising the assets already built up.
Libraries provided literature for people in the community. They also provided a location that could be a focal point for related activity. Southwark’s new building is not a ‘Super Library’, it is just a rebuilt library and will suffer the same fate as many others if its value isn’t realised properly over the years. I do hope it is used with pride and that many activities spring from it, activities that are not just replacing yawning gaps in provision elsewhere, but are creative, engaging and can contribute to the community.
It does not matter if a library is in a small, humble building or an all-singing, dancing museum of modern art piece – it is how it can be used that matters, and how well it supports that use. With a population crying out for culture and to be engaged and informed, the most obvious use is to develop these spaces as facilities to support the cultural capital of our people. This requires a rethink and an effort to re-define what a library can be to society. Simply sticking an information point in it does not save it. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against multi-use spaces, but when we cannot see the real value of libraries and their potential for cultural development, then we should, frankly, admit defeat. Activities related to libraries need to be practical, attractive, and supported by decent facilities to make people fee comfortable, safe and valued. Blatantly, this includes having a toilet and refreshment facilities, but how many libraries do?
I finish with words from Philip Pullman – well qualified to write on the subject. Many other authors have been saying similar things for years. Authors, in case our governing powers forget, are those people who create the very essence of what populates the shelves in a library. These key people also have an uncanny knack of knowing the impact published work can have on society, and how it can be endorsed and encouraged:
“Libraries are different from schools, because you don’t have to go… it’s just for pure pleasure… The library is not just about books. It is a place where people can go. Having that sort of space is very, very important in many parts of Britain, they provide social functions.”
‘Super library’ in Southwark opens its doors http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-15912616 BBC News 28/11/11
Clarke, N. I’ll give money to save libraries, ex-Waterstones boss pledges http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/ill-give-money-to-save-libraries-exwaterstones-boss-pledges-7582631.html Independent 23/3/12
Pullman, P. Philip Pullman: Libraries are not just about books http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/philip-pullman-libraries-are-not-just-about-books-7582630.html Independent 23/3/12