A place to discover…

BBC 2's Daily Politics show posted a short video about the relevance of public libraries today. They offered statistics showing that between 1997 and 2007 borrowing dropped by 34% and that in 2007 38 public libraries closed. Equally as downheartening for me was that the person they interviewed about libraries was not an information professional. Although he spoke nicely, albeit briefly, about libraries, Prof John Mullan is a Professor of English at UCL. Surely this voice should've been one of us? Why didn't the BBC think to find their way to a librarian? Why is a professional voice for our profession not on their speed-dial?

My spirits were lifted slightly by one of the people they interviewed on the street. This lady simply said:

"Libraries are the place where people discover their imagination and where they discover who they are."

2 comments to this post

  •  :  It seems to me that it's a bit of a vicious circle, really. If footfall (and borrowing) drop, government can use that as an excuse to cut funding; once funding is reduced, libraries have to cut staffing, opening hours and stock; and the next time we want to borrow something, the library's either not open, or the book's unavailable. I'm also always amazed at friends of mine (otherwise intelligent, well-educated folk) who don't really know what to use their library for and, often, don't even realise that borrowing is free. I think learning how to use a library should be part of any basic school education. If people really knew what was on offer, they'd make more use of their local libraries and make sure that their taxes supported them.
  •  :  Aah, the public library... I grew up in a New Town, and the public library there is still going strong. It has everything - books, CDs, really is a place of wonder. Before discovering it, I was lucky enough to have a great library near my junior school, so I got into the library habit early. I think my love of books (combined with the heavy discounting of all those naughty supermarkets and online stores) has led to me wanting to own books though, instead of borrowing them, and it's so easy to do now - in fact, in a lot of cases, it's easier to buy the book you want than borrow it. Which leads me neatly onto my one and only negative library story.... Having been spoiled by my perfect childhood New Town lending library, I went to my local east London one expecting the same variety of product and high level of customer service. Oh dear. I took some books back, and the lady on the desk took them from me, but just threw them on a pile behind her. I went about my business, and this turned out to be a mistake - I should have waited for her to check the books back into stock. As a result, the next time I went to the library, I was told that I owed money for overdue books. Obviously, the staff at the library took several days to check in the books that I'd returned, therefore sending my account into arrears. I've never been back since. I wouldn't say I'm holding a grudge, but it was about 10 years ago... Although this isn't a particularly happy story, I think it gives clues to how public libraries are viewed these days, and the picture isn't a pretty one. Nowadays, they're viewed as second-rate literary dumping grounds, not taken seriously, and certainly not somewhere that the serious book-lover would go. Why? Well, the books aren't there for a start - it's becoming increasingly difficult to find the latest bestseller there; I personally find that quite inspiring and exciting, but this leads me onto my next point. Nobody takes risks anymore. I love the idea of trying a book without knowing whether I'll like it or not. If you take it from a library, you just return it - you've not lost anything (apart from the time it took you to decide you didn't like it). If you bought it, it's money you didn't get back. Unfortunately though, because we can get our books cheaply, and because we live in a disposable culture, we seem not to care if our books are wasted, and we're happy to binge on a diet of celebrity memoir and cheap write-by-numbers mass market fiction. We no longer see books as a valuable possession - things that we adore and get excited about, a unknown voyage of discovery. They're just another commodity (thank you Tesco / Amazon etc). In a world where almost infinite choice is seen as a good thing, the library finds it almost impossible to compete with people like Amazon, who do their utmost to take all the fun out of browsing for a random book. But apparently we don't have the time for browsing anymore, and need it all to be done for us - have you ever looked at the recommendations that online retailers suggest for you? And I mean really looked? They're rubbish. In my day, if you wanted guidance in what to read, you could ask your librarian. I believe that in most cases you still can, but most people don't know that any more - they think a library is somewhere you go when you want to get out of the rain without being forced to buy a cup of tea. This in turn has led to libraries not bothering; having a terrible selection, charging you for overdue books when you returned them in time, not really caring what people want. In a multimedia society, local authorities find it hard to believe that, actually, we still just want books. So what to do???? Well, write to your MP, and make sure the libraries in your area are what you want. And USE THEM. Show everyone how much faith you have in them. They'll then follow suit. Crikey, I've inspired myself - I'm off to the library before it closes...."Fly Fishing" by J R Hartley anyone?

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