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’.