The debate about public libraries that emerged after Rachel Cooke’s article in The Observer last week left me feeling a little cold. Whilst I am pleased that there are still people out there who care enough about their library service to write articles warning of their decline, I did feel that the main thrust seemed to focus to miss the point a little and seemed to follow the Tim Coates school of thought that throwing money at books would go a good way towards solving the problem of lack of usage. This is in itself rather depressing to consider that Tim Coates is some public library guru sent from on high to deliver us from our ultimate destruction (perhaps an exaggeration, but you get the drift).
Predictably, the comments that were posted on Cooke’s blog post followed the same mantra: more books=more issues=the salvation of the library service. For example, one respondant wrote:
Well done, Rachel Cooke for stating the obvious – libraries are about books. But libraries are no longer run by librarians, they are run by managers. Managers arent [sic] interested in books – they are concerned with fulfilling the local councils agenda and various government targets which have nothing to do with books. One of the targets library staff were given in my local authority was reducing the fear of crime!
So libraries offer something that non-book lovers will want – free internet use, games, social networking, and as a result, alienate people who want to read or study. The excuse used is that people will come in for the Internet, and then borrow books. But they dont [sic] do anything of the kind, as the falling book issue statistics demonstrate.
This kind of argument is often used by Tim Coates as part of his drive to ‘raise standards in public libraries’. In an article from 2005, Coates wrote:
They [senior managers] anticipated that all information could be organised in an accessible way. Not only was the electronic future technically innovative but it was also attractive to young people. Computers were introduced to libraries and book collections were allowed to fall into neglect. As a consequence, demand dwindled. Libraries found a role instead as free internet cafes.
Coates clearly draws a parallel between lack of library usage and the introduction of computers into public libraries. This is, in my opinion, a rather simplistic parallel. X can never solely be blamed on Y. There are numerous other factors that need to be taken into account. Certainly, the growth of the internet has had an impact. Whereas once the library was the first place to go for information, now (for many people) it is Google. Furthermore there is a general reluctance to change layouts to meet the needs of borrowers. For example, in my library we had paperback books shelved in at least three different locations (four if you include the returns shelves). When it came to finding a particular paperback, it was necessary to literally hunt around the library until it could be located – a highly inefficient system. This system was altered and now paperbacks are either on the returns shelf, or located in the run of fiction.
Now, I’m not saying that thinking about the layout will suddenly turn things around (I don’t take the simplistic approach of the ‘buy more books’ brigade). I can no more credibly suggest that than those who suggest that massively increasing the book budget will make a difference. However, it does indicate that there is a number of factors that have an impact on the delivery of the public library service. There is no point believing that there is a golden bullet that will ensure the long-term prospects of the library service.
The one thing that tends to get overlooked in these discussion is virtual usage of the library system. In my authority, visits to the library has declined by around 130,000 compared to 2007. Visits via the website have, in comparison, increased by just over 130,000 compared to 2007. Therefore, putting together the two figures, there has been a relatively stable number of visits to the library, whether it be physical or virtual library space. This is significant because a number of services that users would once have taken advantage of in the library can now be accessed at home via the internet. Book renewals and reservations are just two examples of services that can now be performed from the comfort of your own house without having to visit the physical library. In the past, a reservation would have led to two visits to the library. One to place the reservation and one to collect it. Likewise, the user would have visited the library to take out books and revisited to renew them up to three or four times. Now they can renew books via the internet they no longer need to visit the library in order to extend their book loans. Furthermore, with the addition of a number of subscriptions, users an access a number of resources (such as Encyclopaedia Britannica) from their computer where once they would have required a trip to their local library (or else purchase a hugely expense collection of the hard copies).
Solely relying on book issues as an indicator of a library’s success is a big mistake. Book issues are a part of a number of methods with which to measure the delivery of the service. They are deeply flawed as they do not take into account those that come into their local library to utilise the reference or local studies collections, nor does it take into account the many enquiries that are dealt with at enquiry desks in every public library. You cannot capture these aspects of the service by focusing in on book issues. And yet these are important aspects of the library service, so why is there this focus? Targets and statistics are not always the best way to determine the success of a service.
For me, I would like to see this growth in virtual access to library services taken advantage of. There is clearly a change in user behaviour in relation to this and it seems logical to adapt the service to take make the most of it. I would desperately like to see ebooks become an integral part of the virtual library space. There advantages are numerous and as remote access grows, there is an opportunity to tap into a change in user behaviour. If users are using the internet more, why not provide them with electronic copies of books? Ok, it’s an emerging technology and still rather niche, but library’s should be at the forefront of these developments, not stuck in the back seat dealing with archaic and flawed arguments about book stock. Library’s should also be engaged in raising literacy and supporting schools as deliverers of educational standards. Homework clubs have already proven massively successful and it is vital that libraries continue to aid the development of our children.
I was always taught at university never to end a piece of writing with a quote. Well, I am going to break this rule but with good reason I think. Not everyone who posted comments on the Observer blog fell in line with the groupthink about why libraries have got it wrong. One in particular highlighted exactly why libraries have changed for the better and restored my faith in those that are passionate about their library service:
28 Mar 09, 9:55am
In the early sixties my dad would take me to the library every Tuesday night. Yes, I read all the books I wanted and more – Henry Treese, Geoffrey Trease, Lucy Boston etc. But it was so austere with typical “Shhh” librarians and despite the fact that I was there every week they never knew my name and when once (only once!) I asked if I could stamp my own books the horror I was met with “If we let you do that , every child…”
I contrast that with the inner city sheffield library where my son has been a member since babyhood – thanks to Bookstart. The staff know our names and we know theirs. They are welcoming, they say “Oh this book’s just come in, I think you’ll like it”. In the summer there was a sea-side day complete with sand and water and seaside books.
And the library isn’t just full of “nice middle class people” like me. It is full of young people borrowing books. Young Somali girls with armfuls of Jacqueline Wilson and the Princess Diaries; people using the internet to contact home (Somaliland has no postal service so you have to email); Parents & Toddlers learning to read together; children doing homework or using the library as a safe place after school to wait for parents. It’s not silent but there is just a quiet hubbub of activity. Anyone making too much noise gets short shrift from other users.
It’s very different from the library of my childhood – libraries have moved on – but is just as loved, just as relevant, just as needed and still welcoming of everyone.