Public library debate

In the Gazette CILIP have spoken to Tim Coates, and given two public library heads the right of reply.

I agree with some of what Mr Coates has to say. Good service is vital. Listening is paramount. Money must be well spent. Libraries need to focus on developing a varied and attractive bookstock, whilst still looking to develop online services.

However, I take issue with some of Tim Coates’  assertions and positions.

1. That ‘the public respond enormously’ to him. Do they? Evidence? And which members of the public? I don’t doubt there are many people who agree with Tim Coates, but often he gets away with creating the impression that everyone but the librarians agree with him

2. Newspapers talk to him all the time. I am sure. But the question to ask here is, why do they? For his ‘controversy?’ Because they see him as a voice of the people?

3. ‘The profession thinks it doesn’t matter what their users believe.’ Really? Again, evidence? I mean from librarians. Are we really so unlistening? I don’t think so. We don’t bend to every wind, and try to have discernment. But speaking as a College librarian, we do a lot of asking and a lot of listening. Sometimes we can’t do what the users want owing to constraints from above. The public library managers reply is right in this regard; that Tim Coates does not acknowledge the complexities of the world libraries operate in. He may see that as an excuse, I don’t know.

4. That book shops are useful models. Not really. They both have books. Similarity ends there.

Maybe the jobs of bookshop workers depend on ‘doing what the public wants’ but only in a very general way; supplying the bulk market and ordering for the niche. Bookshops shape as much as respond to public demand.

Rarely will the jobs of bookshop staff depend on conducting a detailed reference enquiry, following up on book requests, helping with using online resources. And so on. Good customer service is of course hugely important, but you could learn that from the off-licence sector as well as you can from bookshops.

Libraries have to do a lot of work around getting books to people. As someone who worked at Waterstones said to me, in a bookshop all you have to do is take someone’s money. Oh yes, displays and the like. I know it’s not that simple. But the transactions and interactions around books are two very different things in two very different places.

5. Mistaking an economic model of efficiency for a more useful one of effectiveness. At some point society is going to have realise some things just have to be paid for, if you want them; slashing and burning may save money, but that does not necessarily lead to better services. Some efficiencies can be made via centralisation I’m sure; but there is a limit.

6. The blank incomprehension he displays at why librarians don’t seem to want to engage with him. A lot of that is because he deals in sweeping generalisations and seems to have contempt for librarians. He appears to genuinely believe that all librarians do not care about patrons and are only interested in more money.

Edit- he did quote me approvingly once, and I assume he knew that I was a librarian. And there are librarians who support him, no doubt. It is his sweeping use of terms like ‘the profession’, without any qualification, that is the issue here.

I think he, and others (hello Laser Foundation) build an apocalyptic model of libraries in crisis to make their solutions seem more necessary and reasonable. They also see themselves as the passionate defenders of the public, assuming that they are the public. And too often they portray professionals as self-serving and out-of-touch.

Right now there can be no engagement because not to be with them is to be against them and (in their logic) by definition to be against the public.

I don’t doubt that there are problems within libraries; but a lot of those are political. If libraries and patrons could meet without intermediaries, we might find things could be made better more easily. Tim is a patron, and I would welcome the chance to talk to him; but I’d want to feel he could respect my views, regardless of the fact that I’m a librarian. Because, where public libraries are concerned, I am a patron too.


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