What are libraries for?

April 13, 2011 at 1:52 pm 3 comments

By Sarah Gillinson

Most people have a wonderful library memory. Mine is not a particularly noble one – high excitement at the discovery of the whole Babysitters Club series at my local library and the realisation that I no longer had to eke out pocket money to get the next instalment. Amazing. Monica Ali and Philip Pullman amongst others have offered much more powerful defences of libraries based on their role in promoting and supporting learning and social mobility.

This legacy of deep appreciation and fondness is high and deserved praise for librarians and library spaces across the UK. But I cannot help feeling that these formative experiences are obscuring the core of this argument – one that is about the function of libraries at their best, not about their form.

During my time at the New York Public Library system (87 community libraries and 4 research libraries spread throughout Manhattan, Staten Island and The Bronx) the biggest and most challenging piece of work I led was to reinvigorate the library’s mission statement. We spoke with all library staff asking what they saw as the most distinctive and powerful elements of NYPL’s work, at its best. We also interviewed users. The response was overwhelmingly positive in many dimensions but at its core, it boiled down to three things. ‘Advancing knowledge, inspiring life-long learning, strengthening our communities’. And that it was free at the point of use.

The more I read of the current debate in the UK, the more I think this holds true as a useful backbone for evaluating options for reform. I want to focus on the last two elements of NYPL’s mission statement as the first relates more to its research libraries.

Inspiring life-long learning encompasses an amazing spectrum of activities from access to information (in any form) to stimulating, stretching conversations with well-informed library staff, from providing spaces for quiet work to activities for teens to support and channel self-expression.

Strengthening our communities includes bringing community members together to learn from each other, providing support for civic activities including access to voting forms, learning about your area and providing safe spaces for people who do not have anywhere else to go. Cultural inclusion also fits here – the child who cannot afford to rent or buy the latest movie cannot participate in the conversation about it.

I have seen all of these things – and many more – done brilliantly in libraries in the UK and the US alike. All free at the point of use. These functions should be safeguarded at all costs.

But do these things rely on traditional library spaces, vast local book collections and armies of librarians and clerks to make them happen? In fact, many of these functions risk being undermined by off putting, outdated buildings, intimidating search systems and over-busy staff. At NYPL, some of the best used community resources were atypical and highly focussed on local need. The high-circulating, tiny library in a shop front at a subway station for example. Or the teen room that looks nothing like a library at the amazing Bronx Library Centre, with laptops and computer games available.

Take inspiring life-long learning. This requires smart, well-informed, open people to have conversations with library members that help them find what they are looking for and expand their horizons. Clearly there is a role for highly trained people, capable of navigating and recalling the vast swathes of information now available. But what about the Master Mind contestants out there, the literature enthusiasts, the Google wizards in our communities? This also requires access to content and comfortable, quiet spaces for working. But these spaces do not have to be huge or contain much more than desks, chairs, electricity points and available laptops. It would be great if they were in the most convenient spots. What of the empty shop fronts in many of our towns? As for content, the shift to ebooks is well underway and the internet has transformed research forever. And how do spaces and activities for teens relate to youth groups, scouts and guides, and sports teams?

Strengthening our communities seems to require a hub. A known space for civic information, advice and support, a place to meet people with similar interests. But where is this hub? Could some of this happen in the community-run post-offices that will be supported by the proposed post office mutual? At the children’s centre or school? At the popular café in the park or the community shop? Could local cinemas run free, open air viewings of popular movies?

I am not pretending that all of these are perfect solutions that should be implemented nationwide tomorrow. I believe all of this is highly context specific and should respond entirely to what is already in communities and where people go.

What I hope I am illustrating is the critical importance of asking the right questions. Not – can we save our library? But can we save, build and improve on what our libraries do best? Without being constrained by how they have done it for the past 100 years.

One practical way to enshrine the values espoused by libraries – and to support their work in new ways in years to come – might be to hand over their operations to a local Trust. What if the Trust board was made up of local people, fantastic librarians and representatives of other community services and was responsible for safeguarding local capacity to ‘inspire life-long learning and strengthen our communities’? They could define what needed to happen in a distinct, ‘library’ building and what could happen elsewhere. They could employ the right balance of trained librarians and local Master Minds. They could understand and respond to who else is doing similar, or complementary work and collaborate with them to create the best local provision. They could use local networks to ensure that everyone understands what is available. Most importantly, they could keep evolving services over time as the volume of information, and the ways we access it continue to change.

I do not think this is the same thing as asking local communities to run traditional libraries. If things continue as they always have – just executed and directed by a different group – the charge of ‘cheap labour’ and ‘degrading professionals’ seems to me to hold. It is definitely not the same thing as cutting traditional library services and not replacing them with anything else. But if the critically important functions of libraries are well understood and maintained, and their form is allowed to flex in response to local conditions, then who delivers it, where and how should be up for grabs.

I know this is challenging. I love libraries. But I love what they can do for communities more. And this requires clear thinking about what library services are for at their heart, and building on all available local assets to do it best – not hanging onto old memories of those Babysitters Club books.


Entry filed under: Cooperatives and Mutuals, Local Authorities, Public Services, Radical Efficiency, Uncategorized.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. thirup  |  April 14, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    Great blog Sarah.. Charlie Leadbeater has a few Library examples is this article that you might find interesting (you might already know them. http://www.localgov.co.uk/index.cfm?method=news.detail&id=97852&layout=2 Plus, it looks like you both agree on the ovarching challenges 🙂

    ‘It will not be enough to attempt to respond to these multiple challenges with an improvement agenda, which has been the mainstream and dominant approach over the last two decades. Better versions of the services we have will not do the trick. We need services which comply with regulations, hit performance yardsticks and deliver the goods. But those alone do not create capable, resilient, adaptive communities able to create a good quality of life. All too often in public services, it is possible to hit the target but miss the point.’

    • 2. Sarah Gillinson  |  April 14, 2011 at 3:21 pm


  • 3. alecpatton  |  April 26, 2011 at 9:52 am

    Fantastic post. I’ll need to return to it a few times to fully digest it!

    One line particularly struck me:

    I cannot help feeling that these formative experiences are obscuring the core of this argument – one that is about the function of libraries at their best, not about their form.

    This made me wonder whether people are more likely to go to the barricades for the sake of form than for the sake of function.

    In other words, close a library and it doesnt matterwhether you can credibly assure everyone tha more people will be better served by its replacement, and people will be up in arms. Let a library shed its most useful services, and people will just stop going to the library – but they won’t take to the streets and protest.

    If my hunch is correct, I’m not sure what can be done about it (except to plan for the disapprobation of a lot of good people, and make sure the service you provide is good enough, quickly enough, to make sure protest is temporary).


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