Guest post #7 – The library unchained, by Chris Meade

At the weekend I met a man who is restoring a Wurlitzer juke box, recreating a beautiful device, fascinating to old music lovers like me, but clearly redundant as a means to deliver tunes to the populace.

if:book UK has been at the forefront of debate over the past few extraordinary years in which ebook sales have soared and many analogue bookshops fallen by the wayside. Those who swore never to read on screens now clutch their Kindles lovingly, and authors of all sorts are pondering self publishing, with perhaps some multimedia enhancements.

As writers, we don’t need publishers and we don’t need libraries like we used to. With a laptop and wifi anyone can write and broadcast their words to a potentially global audience, and trawl through oceans of freely available information and content. It’s shocking that so many of those whose work is about broadening access to culture still find it hard to acknowledge the amazing advances taking place in what we’re all supposed to care about most: free access to information and culture. Too much of the discussion  around libraries feels like a get together of Wurlitzer fans, nostalgic for a lost cause, not champions of the best means of access to knowledge in the 21st Century.

We’re all Nearlywriters now, able to publish our words whenever we wish, and therefore fully responsible for deciding when what we’ve written is fully cooked and ready to be shared. And we’re Unlibrarians, with a massive collection of information online that we try to navigate our way through, aided by search engines, colleagues and friends, learning on our own terms, mapping our own development.

In that light, what shines out is the need for state provision of what used to be seen as the trappings around the core of public library services.

Now more than ever our communities vitally need a local breathing space, free to enter and ours by right, an actual place in which we can think freely, in public, amongst others, and find collaborators and coaches to help us further our intellectual and imaginative interests. If the State refuses to fund these spaces, then the motivated will create their own. But what then of all those with issues and frailties which define them as problems to the State but find in their library a space where they are treated as citizens first?

The library needs to take inspiration from the qualities of the social network. It should be a place to put your profile, to define your interests and goals, for yourself and to a wider community; a safe place to local and meet like minds and potential collaborators; a flexible space for thinking writing and reading, alone and in groups, quiet enough for those who come here to escape a noisy home; active enough for those who are fed up with staring in silence at their four walls. Here we can ‘click’ on fellow users as we would on their icons online, to read more about them and send a message if we want to connect with them.

Connected on line, members can easily pool resources and expertise, arranging meet ups wherever there’s room. Sites promoting this kind of collaborative consumption go back to the birth of libraries when academics shared lists of the books in their homes for students to visit and borrow.

Nobody used to come to libraries for the reassuring smell of books – they wanted knowledge and grew fond of the whiff of inspiration and empowerment which they imparted.

Chris Meade is a writer and Director of if:book UK, ( a think and do tank exploring the future of the book which recently set up the if:book cafe at Hornsey Library in north London. He was previously Director of Booktrust and  The Poetry Society, and for twelve years worked in public libraries, as arts officer for Birmingham and Sheffield libraries where he was a pioneer of reader development, promoting libraries as an imagination service.
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11 Responses to Guest post #7 – The library unchained, by Chris Meade

  1. Alan Wylie says:

    A lot of my fellow colleagues are already ‘unlibrarians’, they’ve been made redundant!

  2. Kate Millin says:

    The role of librarians in the world described by Chris in this piece is an interesting one. It is about the professional librarian being in the spaces that those who want to live and connect in the virtual world to help, support, initiate and participate in the same way as they do in the physical world. It is a lot harder to do this virtually than physically, but the mass of opportunities and information on line can still be overwhelming for many.

    In addition if a lot more of life’s events and activities are initiated and developed online librarians still have a very real world helping those who are not comfortable in the virtual world. If librarians don’t do this then more people are going to be isolated. Librarians also need to help those who are not aware of the risks inherent in the virtual world to understand how they can participate while not making themselves vulnerable by giving away too much information. A bit of help in a way that doesn’t frighten people off when they are first entering these new worlds is going to continue to be a significant librarian skill that remains in demand for the next 25 years.

  3. Dr Malcolm Rigler says:

    For years and years I have been annoyed, angry, frustrated and sometimes in total despair about the fact that near my GP surgery are people trained and able to help my patients to learn what they need to know to be able to cope bettter with their changed life experiance now they have suddenly become blind, been informed they have cancer , have a child taking to drugs and so on and so on.The people are called librarians . Many of my patients could not get to a library – parking problems, fear of crossing the boundary into the “library space” , no confidence – but would access via email a virtual librarian service . I understand that in the USA there have been “patient education centres” for many years in some places. A virtual “patient education centre” may well be the answer to my frustrations.

  4. C says:

    A virtual patient education centre is a wonderful idea, but I like the idea of a real one too. The mix of information and people skills involved is exactly what makes good library staff so unique, though I wonder how many are equipped for this role. Real places inspired by virtual spaces and accessible online too, with staff confident in helping people find their way to the information they need to thrive as healthy, thinking, creative, learning, human beings – that’s a service that is essential for our future.

    • alan wylie says:

      Not just “i wonder how many are equipped for this role” but wether library staff should really be taking on these roles at all? Many believe as i do that the over diversification of library work has diluted the core to a point where in some cases it is hardly recognisable! I’m not against change and development but only if it is truly needed and wanted and not just a way of cutting , as co-location, self-service, sharing services, ‘community libraries’ and the whole neo-liberal library agenda is! We are already becoming a national one stop shop, look at the fiasco in Kent with library staff giving out death certificates!

  5. Chris Meade says:

    Yes but what is that ‘core role’? I think it’s changed fundamentally, or rather been turned inside out by technological change.

    • Alan Wylie says:

      “Books are still the main reason why most people use public libraries – and are
      seen as the core offer of the library service by users and non-users alike. Our
      survey found that 76% of people who described themselves as ‘library users’
      borrowed or used books for pleasure, and 44% for study.” taken from “What do the public want from Libraries” MLA Nov 2010
      add to this buildings, IT access, dvd’s, cd’s etc and last but not least professional and knowledgeable paid staff!
      If we are talking about reference and information services then the picture becomes a little more complicated because of the move towards online resources and library 2.0 and the whole shift towards the ‘Enfield’ model of information provision but at the heart should always be books and professional and knowledgeable paid staff!

      • Chris Meade says:

        So you think that in envisioning the future of our national information and imagination service in 2012 we should concentrate on storing and issuing books from buildings? Have you noticed how people who last year swore they’d never read books on screens now hug their Kindles and fill Oxfam shops with old paperbacks? Or that websites and other media have long ago overtaken the book as main information and entertainment source for most people? Of course library users go to them to borrow books because that’s what they think libraries do. But they should see them as key providers and curators of information and ideas delivered by the best means available.

  6. Alan Wylie says:

    I’m a librarian, library campaigner and trade unionist who at the moment is spending all his energies, efforts and time trying to save jobs and libraries, at the moment and for the near future all i know is that the vast majority of library users want and need books! I am very keen on and use daily, electronic/online means of delivering and retrieving information, it is a very important part of my job as are books and i don’t see that changing any time soon!
    My vision of the public library service in this country in 20 years is as follows; privatised or divested shiny city centre multi-million pound glass cubes, operating as ‘one stop shops’ staffed by retail trained ‘floor walkers’, built at the expense of the local branch network which will have nearly all closed or be run by volunteers! Not i’m afraid my idea of progress!

    • Alan Wylie says:

      Chris, sorry if my previous comments seem a bit terse, I just feel that i’m having to fight a battle on all fronts at the moment, colleagues being made redundant, libraries being closed or under threat, the threat of privatisation in Wokingham and Croydon (and the situation in Greenwich), Team London and their plans to swamp libraries with 2,000 volunteers and basically just trying to constantly justify my own existence etc etc etc! Anyway i totally agree that we need to keep innovating and developing especially when it comes to information provision and i am all for this but not if it means the destruction of the Reference Library network, reserve stocks and special collections and the deprofessionalisation of reference and information work and this is what is happening up and down the country i’m afraid!

      • Chris says:

        Hi Alan, well I’m not surprised you’re feeling beleaguered, but I do think we need a positive vision for the future which looks at the bigger picture of how we find and share information now. I personally think that paid staff with professional skills are crucial, but what those skills should be is an important debate. I reckon the core role is helping all kinds of people find the information and inspiration they need, so being able both to curate collections with the people skills needed to tempt users into exploring new worlds AND the information and tech skills to discover exactly the information that individual users are seeking, being a better compass than any search engine.

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