Saturday, 28 August 2010

Libraries

From comments I posted on William Gompertz's Gomp/arts Blog on the BBC's website.

I use a number of London libraries. They come in two types.

The first is embodied by almost any one of Lambeth Libraries (for example). These have a number of different facilities. The basic ideas of stocking books and quiet spaces in which to read them are the core service around which all else is built.

The second are like the Ideas Store in your article, or the recently (re)opened John Harvard Library on Borough High Street. This is an attractively bustling, marketplace-style home for people wanting to access all manner of media. Books are just one part of the open plan arrangement. I find both useful as well as heartening.

Of course both these types of libraries are council owned and run as libraries. The one issue that your article - and others commenting on it - is right to flag up is the nature of the building and what it represents. A dedicated building, maintained statutorily is deeply important, irrespective of the manner in which it is used. Should government start discussing the incorporation of libraries into buildings or businesses not constructed primarily for that purpose, then there's trouble ahead - especially if sweetened with the duplicitous term-of-spin "choice".

and then, later

It seems to me that what is important about Silito's, and consequently Will's piece is that there seems to be a hang up over books. As one or two contributors have already pointed out, the services provided by a library extended from books and all manner of journals, prints and other published media to provision of the space in which to consume these.

Over 5 years ago when the Raynes Park library (borough of Merton in South London) was being overhauled, two sizeable shelves of books from the library were made available on a return-or-replace basis at the train station opposite. There were no staff or self-checking protocols in place, just an assumption that books would be returned or replaced. Once the novelty of the arrangement waned, the situation was at the mercy of those who would have a source of reading material and those who need loo paper.

Checks are in place at a bookshop or supermarket: one must purchase a book to take it off the premises. Similarly, internet cafes & bars with WiFi make the implicit demand that access to this service is contingent on custom.

It seems to me that a library provides a space, services and stock (not product) that have none of the cachet of consumption or exclusive ownership. Instead it promotes a mutually assured media stock guaranteed - albeit nominally - by the system of reservation, finite-period lending, fines and internet firewalls, as well as the traditionally hushed space in which to concentrate on it all. Someone mentioned that libraries seem to have eschewed WiFi provision. On reflection this seems consistent with all of this, after all, I've never gone to a library to read one of my own books, occupying a seat (= bandwith) that someone trying to actually use the library might otherwise have needed.

Ed Vaizey is right to pay attention to the new ways in which we congregate to consume media. However, this probably has little to do with any perceived failings of the public library model and more to do with our attitude towards and ability to own stuff.

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