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Volume 20 - Autumn 2005


 
 

The Decline and Fall, part 2 - The Public Library

by Nigel Jury
 

Is the public library a repository for books, street-corner university, video store, internet based information centre, or a warm and quiet place for the lonely dispossessed to doze the day away? In a time of financial pressure to justify every facility, librarians can no longer buy every new book published or requested. Some libraries have decided to stock only those books reaching a certain level of usage, consigning all else to the bin, so don't expect to find the entire works of Dickens available, or any authors not in fashion. Some libraries compete with Blockbuster, videos/DVDs pushing dull old books off the shelves, charging rental for the video loan. Many charge for use of internet-connected computers, so penalising the people most in need of the access as they lack any home facility.

Most libraries badly need redecoration and repair, the cost in total estimated as £650 million - ten years ago. In March 2005, an all-party select committee of MPs reported that the state of the public library service 'is a scandal that must be rectified', but all eyes were on the election, so little notice was taken by the public. Fear not! The Labour party promised 'to reinvigorate libraries' if re-elected. Moreover, they 'will develop a strategy for the modernisation of libraries, which builds upon the best, strengthens library leadership, sharpens customer focus, and harnesses local popular support" What drivel is this?

323 million visits tell me that readers, or if you insist, customers support their local library. Because they can read they are able to decide what they want, and if asked would probably reply 'please adopt a fulsome book buying policy, a library not supermarket based stocking policy, fix the roof and paint the place'. In other words dump the spin consultant's sales gabble and spend the money needed.

But the real problem is not lack of funds, it is lack of vision. Librarians should be proud of an extensive book collection, not junking the little-used book as though it was out of date cheese. New digital machines for getting to the information you want, be it personal computer, iPod, mobile phone or Sony's new electronic book Librie, are simply extra means of satisfying the apparently insatiable need for information. While books and journals, magazines, reference books and directories are still printed, and while out of print editions are still archived, the public library is the ideal repository of all this information. Professor Mark Hepworth, Director of think-tank Local Futures Group, points out that despite recent depredation, "we still have a world-class library system, yet it is largely ignored in the government's vision and strategy to significantly improve our country's performance as a knowledge-based economy". To succeed we need every method and facility for education available to all. While the select committee was right to condemn the serious lack of maintenance in our library buildings over the years, it failed to stress the crucial reason why their fitness for purpose must not be jeopardised: their report lacked vision.

Such intellectual failure invests the library services of Oxford University who plan to destroy the country's second biggest library, world famous Bodleian. After serving more than 40 departments for 400 years, most of their 6 million books will be moved to remote, robot-operated repositories outside the city. A triumph of administrative efficiency no doubt, ruinous to scholarship: another failure of vision.

Brighton boasts a supremely elegant new library, an £8million 'civic temple' receiving great praise from commentators, yet their enthusiasm is focussed on the building's architectural splendour, far fewer words extol its purpose. Do they lack vision too? There is much work to do.

In Queen Victoria's time, business tycoons endowed libraries in their home towns, proud of their success, often recalling countless hours spent by candlelight poring over books "to improve themselves". A few generous businessmen continue the honourable practice today. We need many more.

 

Skin Deep - Volume 20 - Autumn 2005

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