No Furniture So Charming – The Future for Libraries

Bethnal Green Library - home to the evening's discussion

Yes, it may be a nice day outside but what better way to pass the time than to write-up yesterday’s library debate at Bethnal Green library?  Let’s face it, sunshine is overrated.  Mind you, that may have something to do with being fair-skinned and prone to burning.  Anyway, I’m not here to share my dermatological issues, this post is supposed to be all about last night’s fascinating discussion about the future for public libraries as part of the London Word Festival.  An interesting and, dare I say, lively event which gave me much to ponder and left me trying to work out how on earth I was going to put it all together into a coherent blog post – you may have guessed already I was struggling to think of how to open this post.  And now I have drawn attention to it I have only made things worse. Damn.  So, where to start?  How about the beginning?  Or maybe some Tarantino-esque narrative messing?  No, let’s go conventional.

It was with a certain amount of fortune that I was able to attend last night’s discussion.  A few days back, the author Alex Butterworth (he of the excellent The World That Never Was – read it!) tweeted that he had a ticket available as he was no longer able to attend.  Seeing as I was off on Thursday afternoon I decided I should definitely make the most of the opportunity and asked if I could have the ticket.  DMs were exchanged and, although I had no official confirmation, I was assured that my name was down on the list and surly bouncers would not turn me away.  Pleased that I had managed to secure tickets for the event, I then moved onto stage two of my cunning plan: get some fellow Tweeters to come so I have company and get the chance to meet people that I have only ever encountered virtually.  Lucky for me, Sphericalfruit, usernametaken10 and the more conventionally named PhilBradley, were all also intending on going to the conference.  This meant only one thing: a touch of pubbage beforehand (well, a pint anyway) – a fine way to start the proceedings.

We’ll skip the pubbage bit, not that anything untoward occurred of course…suffice it to say, however, that the Salmon and Ball pub makes an interesting contrast to Bethnal Green library…

So, on to the event itself – which is, after all, the reason why I am writing this post.  The event was hosted by Travis Elborough, writer and occasional reviewer for The Guardian.  The panel consisted of:

In terms of the format, the presentations were split into groups of three with a break between each session to enable the panel and the audience to reflect on the ideas that the presenters had each put forward.  There was also a short interval after the second group of sessions to enable people to get a drink and talk to other attendees (and, in my case, do a little Voices for the Library promotion).  So, on to the presentations…

…but before we move onto that, there were a couple of annoyances that kicked the evening off.  First, the event started with Travis ‘shushing’ and then we were told that the presenters’ would be informed that they had reached their five minute time limit by the sound of a book being stamped.  If they proceeded for a further thirty seconds then the audience were to collectively ‘shhh’ until they stop.  I’m sure this was all meant as an amusing way to manage the presentations, but it did strike me as ill-advised.  At an event such as this it is not advisable to alienate a proportion of the audience so early in the proceedings.  As we all know, there’s nothing librarians hate more than the stereotypical book-stamping, shushing, over zealous librarian.  Well, apart from those that perpetuate that stereotype perhaps.  So, next time, skip the shushing please :)

Taken shortly before the shushing announced the start of the discussion.

The first session of the evening included presentations by Tom Armitage (game designer and technologist), Kirsten Campbell (writer and educational games designer) and Rachel Coldicutt (creative producer).  There seemed to be a running theme through these opening presentations: libraries as places to explore and transform.  Tom had an interesting idea about using the date label as a space to provide intriguing information about the book in question.  He argued that ‘books are their own souvenirs’ and should include information about the book’s own story (is it new, well travelled, always out on loan?) to intrigue people into exploring the book itself.  Kirsten referred to her love of her mobile library (her father was a mobile library driver) and how libraries should be a space to inspire children and act as transformative spaces.  She also shared her illustrated version of the mobile library – complete with cocktail bar (!).  Thankfully, it also included a computer and underlined the importance of the library as a vital resource for those without Internet connections (not all presentations reflected this need).  I’m not sure if her vision of a mobile library complete with cocktail bar would get off the ground, but I’d certainly use it!  Finally, Rachel argued that the kind of library we know now is probably coming to an end.  And, luckily, she has now posted her presentation online so, instead of making sense of my notes, I can simply quote her:

In my experience, all the best libraries make it as hard as possible to find things. They disguise them with esoteric filing systems, hide them in book stacks, or behind book request form, or they just don’t have the books you want.

I’m a big fan of limited choice. When there aren’t many things to choose from, the difficult choice is a lot easier. And when you don’t have the luxury of “people who liked this also liked”, you have to find your own way.

So I would ask that the library of the future is a place that enables limited, arbitrary choice. A place that makes you concentrate. And a place that makes you improve yourself, because you don’t have any other choice.

An interesting, slightly quirky presentation: libraries as places where you can’t find what you want.  Would that work?

After Rachel’s presentation we moved onto the panel’s reflections on what had been discussed.  Before we moved onto the next round of presentations by Ruth Beale (artist and ‘pamphlet librarian’), Nicky Kirk (architect at Amenity Space Architects) and Peter Law (digital producer for Hide and Seek).  Ruth argued that libraries do not have a clear identity compared to books.  She suggested that libraries represent:

  • A classic hallowed place
  • Communal space
  • Something personal
  • Something digital

She shared images of the book block at the recent protests in London and the mass book withdrawal at Stony Stratford library, as well as noting the many cultural references to libraries in film, such as Ghostbusters, The Day After Tomorrow etc.  It was interesting to note that books do have a clearer sense of identity than libraries.  Perhaps that is because libraries represent abstract ideas and notions that cannot easily be symbolised.

The next presentation by Nicky Kirk unfortunately referred to libraries as ‘monastic spaces’.  Yes, you can guess where this is leading.  Libraries should be a place for peaceful study and should be a reaction against the digital world.  They should be filled with intimate private spaces, sound-proofed to ensure quiet reflection and study can take place.  Quite where children (who make up a massive proportion of library users) would fit into this I am not really sure, let alone those without Internet connections at home.

The final presentation in this session was delivered by Peter Law and argued that libraries should have revamped tech, better websites and should be a playful space for things beyond books (although, as Peter kept reminding us, libraries should be about books too).  Also suggested that libraries should be a space to use for theatre productions (like that idea) as well as for bands to perform (which some libraries have already taken advantage of).  I think out of all the presentations I liked this one the most.  Peter acknowledged that books are central to the library, but that they could and should offer so much more.  Surely this is what the future library should look like?

The London Word Festival - including a lovely badge!

We then had another break for a discussion amongst the panel and points from the audience.  It was at this point that a couple of us (one more forcefully than the other!) raised the issue of the strong book bias in a lot of the presentations as well as the event in general.  The shushing and book stamping were raised as issues of concern in terms of stereotyping and there was a certain disappointment with the lack of really innovative thinking in terms of what the future library would actually look like.  I added that I felt access to information was a crucial component of the library service, and that the format in which it comes in is not important, whether it be ebooks or the Internet, libraries should provide a space for free access to information in all its forms.  To be fair, I think some of the panelists and presenters did reflect this, but there had been a high number of depressing ‘books and silence’ type presentations.  Certainly few of the presentations reflected my vision of the library of the future.

After a heated exchange and short break we moved onto the final round of presentations (and consequently the end of this long post!).  The final presentations were delivered by Dan Thompson (Empty Shops Network), Trenton Oldfield (This Is Not A Gateway) and finally Jon Stone and Kirsty Irving (Sidekick Books/Fuselit).  Dan started off with the controversial statement that he ‘doesn’t like libraries’ and finds them ‘dull and uninspiring’ – good start!  What followed, however, was an interesting presentation on creating portable book cases containing your favourite books which can be shared with people to inspire them.  Dan argued that we all have books that we would happily pass onto others (I’m a bit of a hoarder so not sure I would!), and this would be a great way of sharing the books that inspired you with the people you know (or even those you don’t).  He also argued that councils are not the best institutions to provide a library service and, instead, people should take over empty shops and convert them into library spaces.  I kinda liked the idea of having one less commercial outfit on the high street and replacing it with a space for books and information – although I am not sure how this would work practically.  I think it is fair to say Dan was a little concerned about how his presentation would come across after earlier criticisms, but it was well received by the audience, even the loud ones at the back ;).

Next up was Trenton Oldfield who opened by talking about his romantic connection to libraries before expressing his view on the politics of the future library.  He argued that they should be held onto no matter what, even if underused by the local community.  Trenton very much appeared to believe in the importance of libraries as social spaces which was an nice change from some of the ‘bookish’ presentations that had gone before (not that there was anything wrong with those).  To finish he put forward six propositions:

  1. Defend the exisiting library
  2. Make the houses of the wealthy the library…open up the places where people have a wide collection of materials
  3. Split the coalition (!)
  4. Create a rite of passage whereby everyone can publish a book (aided by the library?)
  5. Encourage serendipity
  6. Promote libraries as a 21st century social space.

I may have paraphrased those slightly as I was rather focused on listening as opposed to note taking at this stage!

Finally came Jon Stone and Kirsty Irving who came up with an interesting comparison of libraries as being like old computer games that should evolve in the same way.  Their piece was amusingly illustrated by playing an old RPG text based game with a library as the setpiece.  Ultimately they argued that the future of the library is virtual rather than the traditional form that we are used to.

Wow, that was a long blog post!  In summary, it was a very interesting event with some innovative (as well as traditional) visions of the future of libraries.  I’m not sure if a fully formed vision emerged from it (if that was even the ultimate goal) but there were certainly plenty of ideas thrown around and lots to think about.  Above all, it was great to see so many people discuss libraries so passionately and argue in defence of such a great and vital institution.  People actually care about libraries and care enough to present a vision for the future, that alone was an encouraging sign.  No defeatism here, just more food for thought for those that wish to see them destroyed (if they are even prepared to taste what is on offer).  Yes, there was a little shoutiness and a little disagreement and debate, but that is a good thing.  Without debate and discussion there is no drive to defend libraries.  By arguing and debating we can come to a much stronger vision for the future of libraries, one that is shared by a wide-range of people.  I sincerely hope there will be many other such debates in the future.  My favourite line from the evening?  ‘Libraries should cost more and be paid for through an increase in general taxation’.  Amen to that.

As for the company I kept, it was great to finally meet up with some people I have been following on Twitter for some time.  Special thanks must go to both Sphericalfruit and usernametaken10 for distributing Voices for the Library flyers whilst I was trying to pluck up the courage to do so.  Many thanks :)   It was also good to hear positive feedback about Voices from members of the audience – things like that keep you going!

Chris Meade has also written a blog post on the future for libraries and a collection of photos from the event have also been posted on Flickr.  Thanks to the London Word Festival for putting on an interesting and lively debate, I hope that similar debates will be planned for next year.

Now, let’s see if I can go and enjoy the sun a little before it gets dark…