Libraries as a public good

Tales from a Brussels bar
Headington libraries protestIt had been cold outside all week, so I was happy that night to wedge myself against the radiator, pint in hand, and peruse the headlines.

A quiet evening – there was just a sprinkling of customers – the usual suspects. And I wasn’t paying attention to what they were saying until one particular conversation intruded.

Thirby was enthusing about one of his latest gadgets, something he was prone to do. “The iPad is the latest thing for anyone doing research,” he was saying. “They’re not just for calls or emails – you can program them to download and store all sorts of information. If you’re looking for answers to something or example, they’re really useful!”

He’d been reading the latest press release from Apple, I thought as I listened. But I was wrong.

“These things are making libraries obsolete,” he declared. “When you’ve got this kind of power in your hand, who needs shelves full of musty old printed books?”

“You could even see the loss of the libraries as being positive,” he continued. “Librarianship could become another art form, with librarians having the same status as artists!”

Maj, startled by this bald assertion that a gadget could replace professional research, took a moment to digest this statement before making his rejoinder.

“But these library closures are a real tragedy!” he cried. “The libraries were created in the 19th Century as a means of education. They were established by enlightened governments who saw that lifting the general level of education among the populace was also a way to improve the productivity of a whole country. Libraries played a key role in improving life after England’s industrial revolution!”

“Librarians are,” he continued, “in effect professional researchers, paid for by the government yet at the service of the public. Companies pay a fortune to have this kind of service in-house because of its value, yet such skills are made available to the public for free! And the whole country benefits because of that.”

Thirby, however, didn’t agree. “That may have been the case once.” he said, “but I think they are less necessary these days. We have the internet, email and Wikipedia, and all the possibilities they bring. And I can use them all on my mobile phone.”

“But it’s not the same,” returned Maj. These are tools – neat ones I’ll grant you – but they are not the same as services from trained researchers. If you are looking for an answer to something, they depend totally on you asking the right kind of question. If you can’t think of it or don’t have the right context, you’ll never find the answer.”

“That’s the whole point about librarians,” he said. “It’s having another person, someone who’s an expert in information search, available to help you find answers, to think of possibilities that you haven’t considered.”

Maj warmed to his theme. “You know, my company has just closed its in-house knowledge centre, and farmed the whole service out to some company in India. It’s absolutely hopeless. People have given up using it, so if we can’t get the information easily ourselves then we just drop the query, and sometimes whole projects get delayed or swept under the table because no-one can admit that they’re stuck for answers. And in the end the company slips because the number of failures go up, and so do overall costs.”

“It’s not so different for the public sector.” Maj was in full flow now. “We think we can cut costs by cutting the libraries. But all we are doing is thinking short-term. Those costs will return with a vengeance in the future with rising unemployment and long term lack of expectation. We all know what that means – increased poverty, rising crime and increased instability.”

“We should be investing in the libraries rather than closing them,” he said. “If we made the education facilities available then at least those with any gumption would have the opportunity to lift themselves out of the mire.”

This was one of the longest speeches Maj had ever made, and we inclined out heads in acknowledgement.

Then Merv chimed in. “I’ve been in parts where there’s been unemployment in families for four generations. Whole council estates where the majority have nothing to do, and no idea what to do about it. You imagine what that does to expectations!”

“The kids don’t bother to learn anything in school because they know they’ll just go on the dole anyway,” Merv continued. “In the end it’s only major public spending in these areas that enables these communities to change. Spending that might not have been necessary had a few basic facilities been in place first.”

“You have to give people in this situation a chance, a way out, some means of helping them improve themselves,” he said. “Otherwise these areas become no-go areas for decent people. I couldn’t stand living there – it was too depressing.”

After these two interventions, Thirby was starting to look rather embattled. But he wasn’t giving up yet. “I don’t want to see the libraries cut more than the next person,” he said.. But all the public services are under pressure! The government has to cut somewhere – if not the libraries then they’ll just cut something else!”

“Maybe so, but the libraries are a bit special,” Maj retorted. “Perhaps it’s our fault for taking them for granted for so long. Most of us grew up using the libraries, but as adults we’re so busy we forget what a great information resource they are for the community.”

“I must admit I don’t visit the library much myself,” he continued, “but I’ve had a long career where I could call on internal services for information. It would be different if I was unemployed, or in mid-career and thinking about retraining, or a young mum looking for information about setting up a crèche.”

Conversation paused as we tried to imagine Maj as a young mum running a crèche. But no-one wanted to mention the beard, so we let the thought go.

“Anyway,” said Thirby, “the decision is not up to me. It’s one for the councils, and I think they’re fairly definite about these cuts.”

“Well,” Maj responded, “It seems to me that the world is being run by philistines. Do they care nothing for community or culture? I thought we elected people to look after our interests over the long term, not just to balance the books before the next election.”

“Did you know that they are cutting the BBC as well?” he demanded. “What’s the world going to be like once we have no libraries, no public-service broadcasting from people like the BBC, and have to depend for information on the likes of the Sun and Fox News?”

A visible shudder ran around the group.

“It seems to me we’re all hell-bent on self-destruction,” he continued. “We might as well just turn into lemmings and go jump off a cliff!”

“Aye well,” said Merv, “if we’re going to do that and you don’t mind waiting a few minutes, I’ll just go and have another pint first.”

A good idea, we thought, and adjourned to the bar.

See also the original article as published in the local press:

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