Walt Crawford  makes a good point clearly.

Other than part of point 1- UK public libraries are not perceived as safe by many people- I wholeheartedly agree.

Some clarifiers first here:

  • I am not anti technology- I’m blogging here and as a service, I do a lot of work with our VLE etc
  • I am not change phobic- I  do distrust change which is introduced for the sake of it
  • I appreciate that in time books will not be the main information/literature vehicle- but that is still some way off
  • Games, music- all good, but they are not what libraries ultimately are for; they have a place, but it is complementary to the core role
  • Providing well organised and timely community information has always been part of a library’s role and if that can be done more effectively then all to the good- so products such as Talis Exchange are to be welcomed

So…all that said I still believe that right now, and for some time to come, libraries are about reading ( for fun, information, guidance etc) via books/print matter generally.

IT provision is needed to complement and extend this role- book groups, community information, sharing stories- but it is not the correct focus for public libraries.

Nor are broad one stop shop initiatives. Having a library near a council information point is one thing, having it in one is quite another.

Use of library spaces for other activities- gaming, music- is to be welcomed so long as it does not impact negatively on this focus.

My public library colleague Michael Stead said in Panlibus (he was talking about a new community information portal) that

“The library isn’t “just” about books, or even about computers: it’s about real life…”

I agree with that too, but would like a clearer sense of how the public library delivers on it and where it leaves well alone. Mission creep is a damaging thing. The library may not ‘just’ be about books, but that can be the start of a slope whereby it isn’t about books at all. edit or, indeed, information/entertainment- but policy drives, targets and the like /edit


5 Responses to Testify!

  1. Michael says:

    Bearing in mind the context – a piece about an online community information solution in a technology company’s in-house magazine – I think you might be reading a little too much into this 😉

    I’ve done the “libraries are about the content, not the medium” thing before (see last year’s 25th anniversary PLJ) and I stand by it. We’ve been in thrall to books because they’ve been the only viable medium for disseminating the content we work with for centuries. Public libraries are about connecting people with the “things” they want; currently, those “things” tend to come in book form, but that’s changing.

    We’re in a situation where other media are better suited to certain types of content. Reference packages work better for me (as a library user) than their print equivalents because I can use them wherever I am. I don’t have to trek over to the library for my DNB fix.

    The problem imho is that there are too many people advocating one of the two polar positions in this question: libraries are either about books and nothing else (I’m looking at you, Mr Coates!) or they’re about other stuff. Where’s that balance that you (and Walt Crawford) are so keen on?

    Public libraries *are* about real life. We’re part of the lives of our users, and we provide the sci-fi novels, travel guides, picture books, business information etc. they ask us to give them. We fit into the other stuff people do with their leisure time, which is increasingly challenging for us, and we need to look long and hard at the niche we occupy. There’s definitely scope for stuff that’s not books in public libraries, but in a (very real) sense that’s always been the case. The clue’s in the word “public”: that notion of an open, free, public space is of vital importance.

    Mission creep is not necessarily a bad thing either. I consider it a close neighbour of serendipitous discovery…

  2. Pete says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Michael 🙂

    I just can’t get away from the feeling that Mission Creep is always bad 🙂

    At the least, unmanaged mission creep is, as it all too often leads to the purpose of a place being lost as the mission becomes whatever government needs a place to do.

    The rest I agree with, to an extent.

    A library is one of many free public spaces- to take the role of other public spaces is not its goal, and I do worry that government policies force it into that role.

    I see the need for a variety of public spaces- parks, libraries, colleges, pools, doctors and so on; each doing its job and not trying to do a (usually poor) version of someone elses.

    As time goes on then yes, there is a need to look at how we best deliver certain “things”- information needs in this case; reference is one area in which electronic access is a good thing. Although see the import of serendipitous discovery in physical ref collections, and the possible complementarity of print and e ref collections.

    As for balance, it is lacking in all aspects of society not just the library debate. I think a ‘books and’ approach will best secure that balance, as well as in the short term being the most politically viable one. Not idealistic or heart warming I know, but pub libs need to engage a little more with the realities of politics and people’s perceptions. Too often it’s about pub libs and their governors telling people what public libraries are for; leadership is all well and good, and change can be good too, but listening- real listening- is needed on all sides.

  3. Pete says:

    There is also the idea of how you create a sense of space and the purpose thereof. If something is easier to get hold of at home- as soon enough many things will be- why maintain a ‘library’ as a space? What would define that space?
    The staff in it? The e resources mediated by it? Its decor?

  4. Michael: I certainly agree that polar positions aren’t helpful.

    “Where’s the balance”? I don’t think it’s fruitful to try to summarize a 60,000-word book (and portions of other books) in a comment on a blog, but when I say “balance” I don’t mean “books, period” or anything of the sort. I will say that, for public libraries, for the next few decades, explicitly diminishing books as medium is a bad idea–which is *not the same* as saying “we’re all and only about books.” I’m not Tim Coates and not likely to be.

    You can look at my reasonably extensive and available track record for cases where I’ve said “libraries are or should be only about books.” I think you’ll find it a futile quest.

  5. Pete says:

    Indeed, Walt.

    I think that balanced change starts with the idea that books/printed matter are what people expect in a library right now and that politically it is problematic to assume otherwise. Starting from this we can keep building strong collections and user bases, whilst building strong e collections where appropriate.

    Michael, I don’t think we are that far apart on this. I certainly appreciate the need for change- it’s how you go about it that matters.

    Balance isn’t about being in the middle. It’s about a realistic appraisal of what people want and need from a service, and how to keep delivering that whilst adapting to changes.

    Doesn’t fit into a nice slogan, but then few real things do. Well there is one slogan- ‘ I wouldn’t start from there’

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