What’s the Point of The Public Library?

In the latest episode of Quentin Lett’s series questioning great British institutions, the Public Library comes under scrutiny. Previously the RAF and the Marylebone Cricket Club have had the ‘what’s the point?’ treatment. Click here to listen to the programme on bbc iplayer.

Only the most deluded individual would try and claim that Libraries are not facing massive changes in society. Sadly, Libraries are often conservative in their outlook. Yet society has changed immeasurably – the internet, ipods, ipads, ebooks, and the like. People, society, media, knowledge and learning are all different. Secondhand books are ten a penny on amazon and ebay. How does a little-changed institution evolve and find its place in this society?

The history of Public Libraries is quite interesting. As an institution, they gained currency during the Industrial Revolution, in an attempt to educate the working class masses by allowing them to borrow books rather than have to buy them. They became a symbol of civic governance, and also of moral improvement. Now, libraries are a statuatory duty, and there are over 4,000 of them in Britain.

Some people seem to want to cling onto the book as the centrepiece of the library, to the exclusion of all else. On the other side of the coin, calling a library an ‘ideas store’ is just superficial, but the basic problem is still there. Staying the same and resisting change in the face of massive social transformation is folly, but by the same token should they be transformed for the sake of it. A few years ago when the internet was new, the library was the only place you could go to use it – yet now, PC’s and laptops are so cheap, virtually everyone has one, and if you haven’t there are plenty of internet cafes. Its almost as if they have an image problem; that they are not really too sure what they are there FOR.

 The programme features Tim Coates, a bookseller and library campaigner, the head of culture from Newcastle Council. Andrew Motion is the chair of the Museums, Libraries and Arts Council, and at one point Letts asks him if he is a member of the ‘books Taliban’… priceless! (there is, indeed, an archaic school of thought that anything other than a book in a library is sacrilege). There are big challenges facing libraries, and ignoring problems only exacerbates them. There is nothing wrong with challenging assumptions and thinking outside the box. One library has been set up in a church tower, run by elderly lady volunteers. Unusual, but why not? Its better than the mobile library that the village used to have.

However I found Letts’s opinions about young people pretty condescending. He would rather make ‘demands’ of young people, to tell them how to behave in a library, not to let them tell us what they want. No wonder libraries have a problem engaging with young people. Libraries are there for and about people, not for librarians themselves. It’s called democracy.

Libraries – like all other ‘non-essential’ services – will be facing massive cuts in the next few years, and budget cuts inevitable mean a loss of services, be it in terms of opening times, stock, staff or libraries themselves. Sadly, literacy will suffer, especially amongst children.

I’ve spent probably hundreds of hours of time in libraries, and not a day goes by where i don’t have a book in my bag for on the bus, and my room is like a mini library all of its own. My parents used to take me to the library before i could even walk, and im sure that played a part in me developing as a book lover. I would hate to think that young people now might not get the chance to learn like that, regardless of whether it is from books or the internet or any other media not even invented yet!


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