Thursday, 15 July 2010

Where the debate is

In my last blog I looked at how social networking had the potential of changing the relationship between librarians and their professional body. I will now look at how social networking is affecting the relationship between the public at large and the library profession.

Debates about libraries on social networking sites are quite common and I have mentioned some in the past. Two recent examples are of interest.

The Government launched their Spending Challenge website asking people to post suggestions on "how we can re-think government to deliver more for less" The site was unmoderated and soon attracted some very offensive comments but it also had a number of posts relating to libraries. Many of these suggested getting rid of libraries:
  • Using the Library as a source of knowledge is outdated. The internet has taken over. They are outdated institutions. Why should the state fund peoples reading habits. The usually occupy prime city/town locations and must cost a fortune to run and staff just so that a small minority of die hards can borrow books at the states expense.

Others suggested introducing charges, using volunteers and other cost-saving suggestions. A few argued for expanding the role of libraries.

On 13th July the Guardian published a piece in its Comment is Free column by Ian Clark, a university librarian. "We still need libraries in the digital age" argued that Public libraries have a vital role bridging the digital divide and teaching people how to get reliable information from the internet. The online version of this article had attracted over 100 comments by this morning. These responses were from "typical Guardian readers" and included several from librarians. They too ranged from getting rid of libraries because the Internet has made them obsolete to passionate support.

  • Libraries are a bit like the Gurkhas - the public goes a bit mushy and woolly headed over them. So doubtless we'll continue to see councils blowing our taxes on large buildings full of books that no one reads....
  • Libraries, like post offices, served a valuable function in the past. That past valuable function is fast expiring and the vested interests in both are casting around for new reasons to justify their existence. We should be looking for the most economical ways to phase both out.
  • Free access to information whether it be the net or good old fashioned books is a mark of a civilized nation. Long may libraries continue.
  • Libraries have never been perfect, but there is proportionately more 'wisdom' that can be sourced from within them. Sadly few people ever trouble to seek out 'wisdom' nor even 'knowledge'. However, via the media they are fed a lot of 'information' that contributes to their confusion.
  • So for me, I still use my various laptops, iPad, BB etc to find information and for general reading. Maybe it's time to focus libraries on the young and leave the rest of us to our own devices
  • Perhaps those scoffing at libraries, in their well paid jobs from the comfort of their homes, should consider this. Even if they do not use libraries there are many of us who see them as lifelines and this should be protected.

We shouldn't go overboard in our response to these views, especially the anti-libraries ones, but at the same time we need to be aware that some people hold these views and the profession should be responding. I was alerted to both discussions by posts on Twitter but there is a digital divide in the profession and I wonder how many senior librarians have picked up on these discussions while they are going on. Several librarians did respond in the Guardian thread but from what I saw the only response from a head of service was from Canada. I know many might say that it is not worth getting involved in this type of debate, and it often does descend to the level of trading insults, but I think it is dangerous to turn our back on a discussion like this. A final comment from the Guardian thread shows that even friends of libraries sometimes despair of our response.

  • Fact is, you are doing a very bad job of explaining yourself here. If libraries are set up by people like you as glorified 'information'-harvesting points they will close, pretty swiftly. My advice, for what it is worth, is that you might try focusing on the glories of a free public space - a physical space as opposed to the privatised non-space offered by the web - offering free access to pretty much any book ever published, and a bit of other good stuff on the side - DVDs, CDs, information technology. Hell, you could even try promoting the experience of reading books to a generation increasingly unfamiliar with them. All this, free at the point of use in a public space which is also often a community hub. Sounds pretty good to me. You could also try speaking about this with passion, like a person, rather than a consultant who uses dead and depressing phrases like 'facilitating access to information technology' and 'delivers on aspects of its core services.' It might not work, but I reckon it would be worth a try.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Good post and an issue that requires urgent attention from the library profession. Librarians need to turn around and look at the signs. Like one of the quotes you used, are we going the way of Post Offices? If so we can rely on a few decades of indecision before rapid and sustained closure of libraries around the country will commence. How far into those few decades are we though?