Guest post #15 – Connecting Spaces and Places: the public library in the 21st century, by John Blewitt

Not surprisingly public libraries are closely associated with books, reading and literacy.  Of course, this is and will remain important role in the coming years but libraries have gradually evolved into spaces and places that do and offer far more. In part this has been in response to changes in the wider society and changes to the way we live our lives. New media is now  ubiquitous and although some people may argue that all you need is laptop and the public library is quickly becoming a thing of the past, this is to miss the point. Public libraries are spaces and places too. They exist physically in actual locations and they also exist virtually. People gather and communicate, learn and socialise, discuss and play in both physical and virtual spaces.

Everybody has to be somewhere and the networked public library service, according to the Arts Council’s Review of Research and Literature on Museums and Libraries, comprises of around 3 500 libraries in England alone and these libraries connect real places with virtual spaces. They are frequently found in central locations in towns and cities and are becoming increasingly important as public spaces and services open to all, whatever one’s class, age, gender, race or religion. They have the potential to develop into  places that not only access to books but access to spaces for community engagement, inter-cultural and inter-generational learning, enterprise, knowledge of environmental sustainability and much more.

In offering opportunities for individual learning and collective empowerment they are already perceived by many people as neutral spaces where you can find yourself, try new things, develop new ideas and so develop the necessary autonomy and resilience required to navigate the troubled times we currently inhabit and to create something meaningful for ourselves wherever we are and whoever we are. Although many libraries already do this , many of the campaigns to save public libraries from cuts and closures have dwelt on the cultural resonance of the book and have largely ignored the possibility of public libraries to realise ‘the right to the city’. For the respected urban Geographer David Harvey ‘the right to the city’ means:

The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is (…) one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.

And, this right to the city can already be seen as informing the thinking and values of a number of new public library developments such as the Library of Birmingham and The Hive in Worcester. These developments are designed collaborative spaces accommodating different roles, organisations, functions, possibilities and uses. The Hive is, for example, the first joint public and university academic library in the United Kingdom. Apart from collaboration, libraries offer the possibilities for co-operative and collective consumption supporting community solidarity while recognising the distinctiveness of place and the importance of people who live and work there.

Finally these new libraries do not have to be iconic projects garnering front page coverage in journals and magazines. They just need to be attuned to their neighbourhoods and localities. The Shard in Birmingham and Canada Water Library in Southwark (like Peckham Library before it) are local libraries whose success will depend on their ability draw energy from and in turn to energise their local communities. While all these libraries are new, with striking architecture that succeeds in making people talk, take interest and get involved, a library doesn’t have to be pink or blue or goldor an inverted pyramid, to be a centre of attraction. The excitement and the future of public libraries will emerge from within these real places and virtual spaces that both connect and are connecting.

John Blewitt works for Aston University in Birmingham and is a Library of Birmingham ‘face’.

About BLee

Public policy researcher based in London, UK
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9 Responses to Guest post #15 – Connecting Spaces and Places: the public library in the 21st century, by John Blewitt

  1. Tim Coates says:

    With the greatest respect to John Blewitt whose credentials are impeccable, I would like to say how much I disagreee with what he says.

    It is the denial of the value of writing – which he unwittingly evokes- that has been so foolish over the last twenty five years in our library service. The constant repeition of phrases like ‘libraries can offer far more’ that has lead to the de-stocking of books from libraries all over the country.

    There is no need to offer ‘far more’ – the whole point of a collection of books is that its scope is without limit.

    I know mine is wholly unfashionable view – but it is not just this fashion that matters. By removing the extremely difficult and responsible endeavour of crreating and maintaining extensive collections of books (in whatever form they are available – but almost all are only available in print) – we have actually removed the very reason for which people use the buildings which hold them. and by doing that we have opened the door to the accountants who, quite reasonably observe, that without use, the buildings have no value.

    Mr Blewitt – to be plain- is simply wrong. Academic,maybe, but wrong

    • Libraries, of course, will always be a place for books but reading and writing is changing. I no longer write with a pen but with an electronic keyboard which in many was is already obsolete. The QWERTY key was designed to slow down typist because the keys on the early manual keyboards could easily jam if you went too fast. Touch screen technology and multifunctional device mean that texts and what we may broadly refer to as ‘literacy’ is rapidly changing too. However, for me, what really is important for our civic culture is that public libraries remain ‘public’ spaces and places.

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  3. LibraryWeb says:

    A quick point, the same point (John Blewitt’s, which I would summarise as an enhanced cultural role for the public libraries) could equally be applied to our museums and art galleries (obviously without the reference to library cuts campaigns and books). Liverpool Museum seem to organise much of what JB suggests as it is and having attended a few events myself they were thoroughly enjoyable. Partners towards the same ends – not just the libraries alone!

    I’m not sure it is for the library campaign anti-cuts groups to point out to the public that our understanding of the value of the public libraries in our communities, cities and society is very much evolving and likewise our understanding of their potential. My own expectations is for public sector librarians to be undertaking this being a part of their role as publicly appointed officers (the public’s experts in the field as it were). (Note also it is not just JB’s field of urban sustainable design that has to be factored into the modern future of the community and city library – modern information technologies have a great deal of potential towards the ends of the libraries and the cultural sector.) JB is effectively drawing attention to an issue of effective library management here.

    At the end of the day the library anti-cuts campaign groups I think know why they support their library, and it is for the books and the literary culture (no one has in particular given them any other reason!). A collection of the best literature on what interests them, where they can find the most recent publications and publishing authors if relevant, I myself am also worried that as the number of books in libraries decreases (and I have seen this first hand over the decades as a library user and more recently as a library assistant) older books are being discarded leaving readers in the particular subject area without the detail of the historical context (or at least as a part of the ‘bookshelf experience’ that people I think will agree is very highly valued).

    Can I suggest (based on reading library related media for numbers of years) that librarianship is not sure of what its values hierarchy is at the moment, The social, economic, technological etc. context has changed, is a safe, maintained building and well stocked library still of primary importance, or is it the time for ‘the right to the city’ and urban sustainable design to take the centre stage (and believe me JB library staff are the first to appreciate the value of design & media, usually having several hundreds of books on the subject readily accessible just as fast as they can put one down and pick another up 😉 or should libraries be focusing on information literacy and IT (and in particular R & D work in this field for the future). To what extent should plans be formulated locally? Etc. etc.

    Back on the issue of management in the field, why am I (a library assistant) writing the above, instead of reading an ACE strategic level startegy document on the subject? It is they who have the spreadsheets!

    I think JB has pointed out the potential enhanced cultural role of the public libraries – which is welcome. How about some formal research 🙂

    • Alan Wylie says:

      Libray anti-cuts campaign groups as you call them do not only campaign on behalf of the book stock, they also understand the importance of the wider spectrum of services offered by libraries, but i do agree with your point about the decreasing number of books on the shelves, especially ‘classics’ and reference books!
      My concerns in relation to what JB has said is that if we diversify too far then we will dilute our core ethos (in my view knowledge, information and learning) to a point where we are hardly recognisable as a library service, this has already taken place through the re-branding of libraries as ‘hubs’, ‘discovery centres’, ‘idea stores’ etc, in my view part of a wider neo-liberal market led agenda for libraries!
      The other point i would like to make is that libraries already do, and have been for some time, the things that JB has suggested;
      “community engagement, inter-cultural and inter-generational learning, enterprise, knowledge of environmental sustainability and much more.”, so nothing new in this then!
      It seems that everybody seems to be trying to re-invent the wheel, over the years there has been a mountain of research and reports published and thousands of hours of discussion going over and over the same topics relating to public libraries, it’s about time that we had strong leadership and a vision for libraries based on what users want and not on some ideoligical agenda to sideline or divest the service!

      • LibraryWeb says:

        Apologies if my grammar is a little haywire, I have been too stressed for too long (O tempora o mores!).

        The thought surfaced after writing the above comment, the 1964 Act created minimum standards for the library service, but the vision of the time most certainly also included that authorities would be encouraged to exceed those standards, giving examples from around the country of exemplar library service. JBs library authority would very much be an exemplar.

        It is though by no means to be sniffed at. The median training of library staff would have to be raised to achieve his objectives (carefully monitored expectations would also have to be made so as to ensure the effort was not fruitless). There would need to be a very strong sense of direction from the top also. Tim Coates has commented that he believes the vision of the 1964 Act to be a perfectly good foundation for the libraries even 50 years on, and I tend to agree it should be brought back to the fore and its core mission and vision reinforced, but also updated as necessary – examples of how a library service could exceed the minimum standards updated with current thinking such as JBs on urban design, the potential for digital and information literacy skills in our communities (and indeed the potential of this technology towards JBs ends also), R&D activities, etc. The minimum standards themselves could also perhaps be due for an overhaul, e.g., in the light of United Nations work on information literacy standards (information literacy as “a prerequisite for participating effectively in an Information Society”). There is an element of urgency in that the times are changing, and it may prove that our public libraries will need to maintain certain standards for the times in order to provide the service the public need.

        This talk of standards is of course at the moment preemptory. The DCMS (who I believe are being wound up) does not seem to consider there are any standards (though authorities still have to provide a comprehensive and efficient service – I’m sure it would take no more than a postgraduate English Language student to point out the exact nature of the grammatical error here). Ed Vaizey in his recent speech to The Future of Library Services conference indicated the DCMS will be comparing similar library authorities and where one authority is not meeting standards their peers are maintaining taking action – making a nonsense of the original intention of the 1964 Act to ensure a minimum standard service for all, but authorities were very welcome to provide as much greater difference to their peers above this as they wished. My point here anyway is that talk of the standards is not wasted at this point, because the current changes to policy of this Government I am sure will be challenged at some point in the future as being a major change to the spirit of the Act. The Conservative government should have presented the changes they wished to make to the the 1964 Act given the nature of them to Parliament for voting on, the Parliamentary Ombudsman I am sure at some point in the future will if necessary duly put our democratic processes back on the rails as required.

        If JBs vision was to become a reality, then it would probably take a major planning exercise and cycle of the order of 25 years and would also have to be incorporated into a wider vision (society is changing in many ways, not just our concept of urban planning). Planning would also have to build on the core vision of the 1964 Act to not be without foundations. Was the vision of the 1964 Act perhaps more practical in that it was the role of the libraries’ strategic body (the past MLA, now ACE, etc.) to continue the work that the committees started off in formulating the Act by laying the foundations of the minimum standards but also detailing performance for those library authorities to be considered to be providing an exceptional service as and when ground breaking authorities provided the exemplar.

        JB has a vision to raise the culture of our communities, and it should (in theory at least!) follow from this that the needs of people are increasingly met and our society becomes a more civilized place to live. Reducing book stock instead of increasing quality reading would leave a very unsteady foundation towards this end. I’m also not convinced that JBs vision could be realised without a social media strategy, JBs vision would only be worthwhile if significant numbers of people above the numbers that currently already gain the benefits JB is aiming for actually gain those benefits – social media would allow for this (this is actually from what I read in the news recently the current preferred communications media for under 25s at the moment anyway).

        Better libraries, not closed libraries (please, ACE, DCMS 🙂

    • There are clear opportunities today to review and refresh the role and purpose of libraries. Research allied to development is most important and this needs to be inter-disciplislpinary and inter-professional so that a fully rounded and holistic picture can be drawn. We also need to enable libraries to evolve in relation to other important factors that are evolving in our society and culture – knowledge, values, technology, work, communications, etc. This R&D is a job for all of us.

  4. Marcia Logan says:

    John Blewitt’s post certainly resonated with me. The Westport Library in Connecticut will have books as long as there are books to have, and we will offer traditional services as well. But we are evolving into more of a community space, a place where people can connect and learn in a number of different ways. We’ve just opened a Maker Space, where people can help each other make things. Currently, we’re making 2 large model airplanes, with the help of a 3D printer:
    We love hearing about what other libraries are doing!
    Marcia Logan

  5. Hi Marcia, here’s Buffy Hamilton’s presentation on participatory learning in libraries (which features Westport’s Makerspace and Sacramento’s I Street Press) and here’s a video about Brent’s Library Lab which I think is worth a watch

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