The Media and the Public Library Narrative

So that’s that then. The narrative has been set – libraries are in decline. Never mind that the argument has been framed around a deeply flawed survey that in no way reflects actual library usage. Never mind that loans were actually up last year. Never mind the evidence that library use is changing. It’s just a blessed relief that there were so many voices out there prepared to speak up for the service and underline their importance to society. Not only the wonderful Phil Bradley and brilliantly passionate Lauren Smith, but also a range of people young and old who rely on their local library service to deliver services that meet their needs. Indeed it was a pleasure to hear many older users accepting that there is a place for computers in libraries and that the library service has to adapt. If only the narrative of ‘libraries in decline’ more accurately reflected the views of the communities that are so passionate about their service.

One of the critical factors behind this narrative is the belief that libraries are about books on shelves, nothing else. Not housebound borrowers, not information access, not online services, not local studies materials….in short only a small proportion of the service is worthy of discussion. That this has been led by campaigners who fail to even question the report, makes this even more depressing. No wonder pubs and supermarkets are suggested as alternatives…if it’s just about issuing book stock why bother with expertise in other areas? Clearly that is a waste of resources that can be ploughed into more book stock. More book stock in a commercial environment, subject to the whims and, dare I say, censorship policies stock selection of corporations. It could make a grown man weep.

The question is, what to do next. Those who follow me on Twitter know that I am quite keen on setting up a blog that can act as a rival (if you want to call it that) to the Good Library Blog – something that can share positive experiences of libraries, campaigns across the UK, examples of the things libraries do aside from book provision all the stuff that is missing from the debate as framed by the usual suspects. Ideally it would be a place where librarians, library staff, users and advocates can blog about the great things libraries do and highlight threats to the service (such as closures etc). This is a lot for one person to take on though, so I’d really appreciate ideas, suggestions, blog titles, hosting options, design ideas and volunteers to help set up and administer. Maybe I’ve not thought this through and I won’t have the time to commit as much as I’d like, but it’s got to be worth a try right? I’d really appreciate any thoughts/suggestions on this below. It would be great to take this forward and challenge the so-called ‘decline’ that is currently being propagated.


26 thoughts on “The Media and the Public Library Narrative

  1. ‘This is a lot for one person to take on though, so I’d really appreciate ideas, suggestions, blog titles, hosting options, design ideas and volunteers to help set up and administer.’

    Maybe I haven’t thought this through either, but I am willing to help with administration, collation of information etc.

    ‘Ideally it would be a place where librarians, library staff, users and advocates can blog about the great things libraries do and highlight threats to the service (such as closures etc).’

    Again, I’m more for highlighting great things about libraries (you quite rightly say its not just about books) – its about interaction for a lot of people and that includes lost and lonely students as well as the more rural communities. Library users are a community – we have our own vernacular, our own sets of values, and we are most certainly not just a giant book club!! Ooh that makes me so angry!

    Get on Ian, I’m up for the Good Library Blog!!

    • That’s great…I certainly think there is a need to address the negative press about libraries and their place in society at the moment (it isn’t the pub that’s for certain!). I think there certainly needs to be something that can counter the ‘libraries are solely about books’ campaign that seems to be running in some quarters. There are more to libraries than that and perhaps we need to spend more time getting that message across.

  2. I think what you’re looking at is something like the Library Success Wiki at which is a useful site – don’t know if you’ve seen it. I think a wiki would be better than a blog for countless reasons, most of them administrative – and we’ve got the model of the UKlibrary blogs that Jennie runs which is very good indeed. I think you’re right though, it’s a huge job, and given that lots of libraries haven’t yet gone down the path of blogging for themselves, can’t see it working in that respect.

    So…. it might be worth considering using something like delicious, with a bunch of tags that we can agree on, with a feed onto a wiki – might be an easier solution?

    • I’ve not seen that before Phil, perhaps I should have done. I’d not thought about a wiki or Delicious tag that feeds into one. Do you think that would reach more people than a blog? I’m thinking it needs to be something that counters the Good Library Blog…something that makes people realise there are other voices out there other than Tim Coates. We can’t let the campaign be driven by one person….I don’t think that is a good thing for the service in the long-run.

      • I heard this covered on the Today programme this morning, with John Humphries wittering on about how 40% of the UK population had not been to a library in the last year.

        What’s that now? 60% of UK people HAVE been to a library in the past year? That is frankly extraordinary – well done, libraries! Your continued success surprises me in the best way possible.

      • Well, you can always have a RSS feed for a wiki. You can also have a wiki email you if there are new additions or changes, but I’d agree, it’s not entirely the same thing. The trouble with the blog idea is that you limit the authoring to a few people who then have to post stuff on behalf of other people, but of course, opening up a wiki for anyone to contribute to has its own dangers.

        As for reaching people – that’ll come by people blogging, tweeting, adding to Delicious, digg etc and I’m not sure it’ll make much difference which format you use there. One particular downside is that a wiki might not turn up so readily in search engine results, I’ll certainly grant that.

        While I take the point about being a countervoice to another blog, it’s still in reaction TO something, whereas what I think you really want to do is to be proactive, and my personal opinoin (FWIW)is tha a wiki has a slight edge over a blog. On the other hand, to complete my fence sitting, it ain’t me producing it, so go with your gut instinct! πŸ™‚

      • Hmmm, it’s a tricky one! Maybe not good as a reaction to something, but think something that offers an alternative voice would be good…something positive about what libraries are doing and should be doing for the future.

        And nothing wrong with fence-sitting! I prefer to think of it as a balanced argument πŸ™‚

  3. I tend towards blogs rather than wikis, the feeds and updates are better as a rule. I like the delicious tags idea though, so maybe a blog that includes the delicious feed?

  4. It needs to be collaborative, otherwise it’ll be too onerous and you’ll never get a chance to finish your MSc…unless you make it the subject of your dissertation…

    I’m personally more comfortable with a blog than a Wiki but I get the science behind why it would become more collaborative as a Wiki with Delicious tagging.

    One tiny extra point: one of the things that REALLY bugs me is that the media focuses solely on their very outdated image of public libraries: full of grannies, dusty books and shh-ing and stamping. Within the profession we all know this is simply not the case – there’s far more to librarianship than ‘just’ public libraries. As a manager of a highly specialist library I’ll bang the drum for my service until the ConDems decide to get rid of it…ca we open this beyond public libraries? Otherwise we risk reinforcing the stereotypes.

    • I’m sooo tempted to suggest a ‘calandar girls & boys’ thing. But since that’s one area that I wouldn’t be volunteering for myself I’m going to slide back down and pretend I said nothing.

  5. I like and admire the Library Success Wiki but it’s not easy to feed from and I think that’s a key tool for your success here. The good thing about a blog is that it’s easy for a lazy busy person to share a link to a particular post.

    Good luck with this idea, I think it would be useful. Just a couple of points from one of the gentleman players:

    (1) Don’t have it talk to the library community. If members of that audience haven’t already bought into your argument they possibly shouldn’t be where they are. It might be as well to pitch the conversation at a relative you haven’t seen for a few years and who doesn’t yet know what your day job entails but wouldn’t mind finding out.

    (2) Please don’t use the P word to mean “librarian!” Many of us with professional qualifications are not librarians and some librarians… The man on the Clapham omnbus thinks that everyone who works in the library, including the library cat, is a librarian. It’s a nice useful, positive shorthand to work with.

  6. Hi Ian,

    I’m collating a list of articles etc that have both a positive and negative spin on libraries/librarians. (The negative and positive arguements are often intertwined in comments added to the articles) I’d like to share it with others, but wasn’t sure what to do with it. They’re on a Google spreadsheet at the moment and I am going to add them to delicious.

    I’m also pulling out positive comments about libraries from Twitter – I was just interested to see if libraries were as loved as I hoped they were by people apart from library staff. πŸ™‚ I suppose they’re just a record of little positive library comments! 469 of them recorded so far since Saturday. I’d like to do the same with other social blogging services too.

    Maybe they’d have a home on the site?

    Any help you want setting up/populating it, just let me know.

    Thanks – Gary

  7. I do find all this very defensive. Perhaps some of you need to sit down with library campaigners and listen to their concerns which are not just about poor book stocks or poor operational efficiency. It was the campaigners who fought hard to save the libraries on the Wirral and in Swindon and they are doing the same job in other areas where libraries are under threat. The Society of Authors, the Reading Agency, Book Trust, the Royal Society of Literature and several campaign groups have ndicated their willingness to support a campaign to persuade those in local government as to the value of libraries to the general public. However everyone s waiting for the SCL and CILIP to provide the leadership and get everyone on the same page. Stop complaining and start working with your friends to ensure that a comprehensive and efficient service is provided in every authority to the millions who rely upon their local library.
    A BBC producer said that they tried to get a chief librarian to participate in one of today’s programmes.

    • Hi,

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m sorry this appears very defensive. The whole point if this was to try and find a way to get people together to campaign positively for libraries. I’m not one to wait around for others and I’m more than happy to be proactively working with others to ensure a comprehensive service is offered to all those who use it. And that includes people like yourself.

      Incidentally, you’re not my dad are you? You’re name is spookily similar! πŸ™‚

  8. No, I am not your Dad but a library campaigner who is regularly contacted by the media!

    If you and your colleagues want to be part of a campaign to persuade those in local government who make the decisions, please contact LLL or the Library Campaign(Laura Swaffield (CILIP Update) and Andrew Coburn (Essex)). Perhaps, you could also persuade Biddy Fisher (CILIP) and Nicky Parker (SCL) to work with other organisations to support an effective campaign. Tim Godfray (BA), Mark Le Fanu (SofA) are keen to help but you must also work with the campaigners and representatives of library users. You should also work with Alan Gibbons (The Campaign for the Book) and watch Alan’s blog which is read by many journalists.
    A former Leader of the CILIP Council once asked the other trustees if they had ever bothered to meet Tim Coates and other leading campaigners. The answer was sadly, No!

    • Just checking! My dad is a D. Clark…very close πŸ™‚

      I think I may not have explained myself very well in the above post (perhaps due to the depressing news that has been doing the rounds today). What I was thinking of was establishing a blog that could share some of the positive things about libraries that seem to have been ignored by the media coverage. Whilst books are absolutely central to the service (no-one would argue with that), there is so much more to a library. Maybe this other parts are less significant, but they are important.

      My issue is that a number of things have not been challenged. I have not heard anyone draw attention to the flaw in the report. I have not heard anyone talk about the rise in loans last year. And I have not heard anyone explain why visits to the library (ie the building) are down (I’ve explained this in a previous post).

      My suggestion is not to establish something that is confrontational, such a space for library workers, advocates etc to share some of the good things about libraries that are ignored by the media. Not only sharing the positive things that library do, but also highlighting library closures etc. The problem is at the moment that the most renowned advocate is a campaigner from outside libraries. It would be great if those that work in the profession could have an equal amount of exposure. At the moment the narrative, as I indicate above, is not being controlled by those that work in the service and care about libraries, it is being dominated and controlled by the libraries are in decline brigade. They are not and this side of the story needs an outlet.

      One thing that cannot be underestimated, however, is how valuable library workers view advocates and campaigners. We need all the friends we can get at the moment and we know we can rely on advocates to fight hard to protect library services. As time passes by, it will be more and more important for everyone to work together to defend the service from attack by those that simply do not understand how libraries operate and contribute to their local communities.

  9. The real issue is how to communicate the VALUE that libraries provide to the general public and especially, the young, the elderly, the unemployed, the disadvantaged and everyone elso who relies upon their local library. That is the message that the strategic agencies, the professional bodies, authors and other trade bodies, and campaign and user groups should be getting across to the hard nosed decision makers in local government. We need a unified campaign which focuses on library users. CILIP and SCL should be providing the leadership, not complaining that no one loves them or that the sector “has a woeful lack of leadership”.

  10. Hi Ian,

    As I’ve mentioned to you before there are many disparate groups who support libraries. I’m not a fan of the “only books” brigade (sorry). I work in a public library that doesn’t have any “qualified” librarians, there are no CILIP members in my authority (that I could find). The public library service is made up of staff, stock and buildings – if we remove any one of these elements the service will suffer. Some people have their own agendas, whether it be books, ideas stores, computers, nostalgic memories or whatever – what we need to remember is that if we fight amongst ourselves libraries may well close while we do it.

    Brian: Excuse me. Are you the Judean People’s Front?

    Reg: F**k off! We’re the People’s Front of Judea

  11. The reason why I highlight the problems of the library service is in the hope that those who are responsible for it will do something to improve it.

    However all one ever reads is about how somehow the figures of decline (which are extremely real) are somehow wrong, or the criticism is unfair.

    I love and use my local libraries constantly. I am, I’m sure one of the most regular readers. But my local library is going to close- not because we don’t want it, but because it is rarely open and has such poor stock that I and others go elsewhere to find the things we need.

    I am sure the people working there are very nice and work hard and so on, but every time I walk by it and the lights are on but the doors are locked I curse them and go and get my cat to write something horrid on the good library guide blog. Tim

    • Maybe your cat could write something about the people who have decided to cut staff,reduce opening hours and close the branches. That would be the council officers, not the librarians.

      If Perkins needs any help finding out how to influence their opinions tell him to bite the hand that feeds him.

    • I’m not quite sure how you have continually heard about the figures being wrong….it certainly hasn’t been reported in any of the media coverage that I have seen…nor indeed on any other forums (ie The Bookseller). I have banged on about it a fair bit, but that is because it is important and this is where I have an issue Tim.

      Let me be frank. I speak as someone who is not involved in any professional body and is not involved in the public library service. I have spent less than a third of my working life in libraries (been working for 16yrs). What troubles me is that as the self-appointed voice of libraries you have not challenged these statistics once. Yes the library service faces problems, but I expect someone such as yourself to acknowledge the issues whilst pointing out the flaws in the report. Not only the flaws, but also the increase in book issues last year. That’s what I expect. Sadly, this was not delivered, which is very disappointing. Instead, the narrative was carried without question. Simply not good enough.

      As for the future…we all know that simply increasing book stock is not the answer. As the Hillingdon experience demonstrates, this is not enough. I do not know why issues and visits for 2009 were lower than 2006 (which had shown an increase on 2005), but it certainly points to the fact that simply increasing the book stock and getting rid of professionals is not the answer.

      We all need to work together for the benefit of libraries, not strike out on our own. That means campaigners working with (and listening to) public library professionals and other parties. Only then can libraries really prosper in the Information Age.

  12. There are certain things a civilized society should have, democratic government, freedom of speach, good health care and access to books. Yes we have the internet but not everyone wants to sit staring at a screen. Children need to have acce…ss to books. There is something wonderful to a child to sit in that quiet area in a library looking at, and feeling all the different books then choosing and finally opening that first page and falling into another world that consists of the written word and and childs imagination. You cannot do that with electronics, its a tactile, physical thing. Then there are the older members of the community some of whom use the library as a point of contact a place for a bit of banter with the staff. A vital part of a routine that gets them out of the house and interacting with the rest of the world. Then there me I like to occasionally read a mindless bit of fluff I like to go and choose my book take it home read it and take it back its all part of the whole. While I’m there I can get information of upcoming events some of which I would not have looked for on the internet because I had no idea of there happening. My point we need our libraries, they are an integral part of British society and if we lose them it will be another part of what makes us who we are as a nation gone. πŸ™‚

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