Man with a vision for the future of the public library

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To many, our threatened public libraries are precious, but what do we need them for in the 21st century? Sheena Hastings reports.

MANY people are passionate about books, and wouldn’t dream of getting rid of any of their collection, even though much of it may never be read again. Books started to become artefacts, part of the furniture of a home in the 1970s, and figuring out character traits of a homeowner by scanning the titles on their shelves became a new sport. Publishing books had become cheaper, so more people could afford to buy rather than borrow from the library, popular fiction flourished, and the falling cost of colour reproduction led to the rise and rise of the glossy coffee table book.

A good number of those who can’t bear to make room for new books by recycling old ones via the charity shop or giving away to friends have probably not set foot in a public library for years. But they’d defend its continued existence to the death, and some are even happy to march in protest over threatened closures of libraries thanks to local authority budget cuts. Are they fighting to protect the civilised values and emancipation that free public access to books represents, a world they grew up and felt secure in, or a service that offers something that’s really relevant to the citizens of the 21st-century, the world of the Google, Kindle and the phone app?

There seems to be some confusion about where libraries are really supposed to fit into David Cameron’s vision of a Big Society (a phrase some of us would already like to recycle into something less amorphous and woolly). Community managed public libraries run by volunteers is one of the cost-saving “new” ideas being touted, but volunteers have helped in libraries for decades with help of trained and experienced professionals.

Before deciding how many of them we need and how they would be financed, maybe we need to answer the question of what libraries should be in the digital age, when they are at risk but could still play a central role in communities.

You’d expect a career librarian to defend libraries to the hilt, but Ronan O’Beirne is not one to look backwards for long. Director of Learning Development and Research at Bradford College, his decades at all levels of librarianship have taught him that the debate on the future of libraries should not just concern itself with the cost-effectiveness of lending books or of keeping dilapidated buildings open. Rather than looking at the number of books lent out – a service whose days may be numbered – he argues that we should consider libraries as the social glue of community and culture, each one a hub of informal learning for the wider community. In a recent post on the Voices for the Library campaign blog, he said: “Part of the tragedy for the public library lies in the almost obsessive ‘managerialism’ which has in recent decades sought to reduce the complexities of a highly-valued community service to the miserly economics of the market stall...” He calls for libraries to become: “...the learning engines of our society; fuelled by the information explosion, tended by the informational professional and stoked by an aggressive agenda of social inclusion and citizenship to bridge the digital divide.” He contends that the mess libraries find themselves at the centre of right now is due to decades of under resourcing, and that little time, thought and money has been spent on marketing them properly.

“Public libraries have lost their capacity to educate by not keeping up with trends...nor has anyone come up with a proper way of measuring their efficiency. One of the ways libraries should be used is as a place of learning for those who struggle with literacy. Local authorities are cutting adult education and ploughing money into crime prevention, but libraries are the perfect place not only to teach people of all ages information literacy. Older people tend to think of the young as necessarily ‘whizzy’ with new technology, but actually they are often not that good at managing information. They don’t know how to filter out good information from bad, differentiating a blog from a well-supported comment. Using existing libraries as community centres or ‘ideas stores’ as they have styled them in London’s Tower Hamlets, is the shape of the future, with lifelong learning, homework and children’s libraries all important parts of their service.”

Ronan O’Beirne’s new book From Lending to Learning – The Development and Extension of Public Libraries by Rónán O’Beirne is published by 2010 Chandos, £45 To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or go to Postage costs £2.75.