TOPIC GUIDE: Libraries
"Books should remain the essence of public libraries"
PUBLISHED: 01 Jan 2007
AUTHOR: James Gledhill
Until recently, most people’s idea of a public library [Ref: Wikipedia] might have consisted of aisles of books covered in varying levels of dust, watched over by a bespectacled, tyrannical librarian. Now, though, in response to concerns about falling borrower numbers, libraries are being modernised and some even re-branded as Idea Stores [Ref: Idea Stores]. The modernisers argue that libraries have to adapt to the demands of the modern world, catering for literacy and lifelong learning, bringing the community together and providing services like coffee shops and training and employment advice. Books, they say, will always be an important part of a library, but in some cases may need to make room for the computers, DVDs and CDs demanded by the public. Reflecting this change in emphasis, spending on books fell from 15 per cent of total library service spending in 1990/91 to 10 per cent in 2000/01 [Ref: Audit Commission], with the result that libraries now have significantly fewer books. Those opposed to the new direction of libraries policy don’t dispute that a modern library must have computers. However, they claim that the real reason for the decline in library use has been underfunding, poor stocks and bad opening hours. And whatever the cause, they argue, libraries shouldn’t simply focus on increasing visitor numbers by the most efficient means possible, but must preserve what makes them unique institutions. On this view, the shift in focus away from books is symptomatic of a worrying trend away from a belief in the importance of making the knowledge and enjoyment contained in our literary culture available to everyone. What’s the greatest danger to the future of libraries: libraries failing to change, or changing beyond all recognition?
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Libraries DEBATE IN CONTEXT
This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
What are the origins of public libraries, and why do people argue they need to be modernised?
Although university and subscription libraries were quite common in Britain from the seventeenth century, it was not until the hard fought for Public LIbrary Act of 1850 [Ref: Spartacus] that tax-funded institutions open to the public were first created. The move met with hostility from Conservative MPs who objected to the idea of public funding for a service that would mainly be used by the working class for self-education. Public libraries were hailed as ‘universities of the street-corner’, where access to the canon of ‘Great Books’ [Ref: Wikipedia] was seen as opening up knowledge, and with it freedom, to the masses. So what has changed? Books are easier to acquire than ever before, whether from the supermarket or from Amazon, and the internet provides alternative ways of accessing information. In addition, the idea of a common culture defined by the classics has been criticised and replaced, in the view of many, by the need to cater for a multiplicity of groups with different interests.
What are public libraries for?
The changes extolled by modernisers, which have seen libraries take inspiration from internet cafés and high street bookshops, are some of the things sceptics are concerned about. Modernisers believe that libraries need to compete in the modern marketplace and provide the level of experience consumers expect on the high street. Sceptics say libraries will never appeal to everyone and should focus on meeting the needs of users (both current and lapsed) rather than attracting non-users, as space for reading and studying tends to be reduced by the introduction of computers and other services. The government has defended giving libraries £80 million of lottery money [Ref: Times Online] that cannot be spent on books. Culture minister David Lammy fronted the Love Libraries campaign [Ref: Love Libraries] and argues (dead link) that ‘books are absolutely central to the library experience’. But some commentators argue [Ref: Guardian] the fact that such a reassurance needs to be made is evidence of a problem.
Should a public library be a community hub or a gateway to a world of literature?
‘Public libraries have a vital role to play in helping local authorities achieve their communities’ social, economic and environmental aspirations - they are much more than just places to borrow books’ argues Andrew Stevens [Ref: Guardian] of the MLA [Ref: MLA]. This view is echoed in calls to recognise that libraries have become village halls [Ref: Parliament.uk] that promote ‘social well being’ (dead link) rather than simply being free book shops or book depositaries. Indeed, it has been suggested that libraries should not be defined by the stock on their shelves, but rather should be seen as ‘curiosity satisfaction centres’ [Ref: Demos]. However, such ideas have drawn criticism with the novelist Susan Hill [Ref: Good Library Guide] and other writers [Ref: Times Online] amongst those bemoaning the redevelopment of libraries as social centres. The campaign group Libri (dead link) has argued that this represents an ‘unacceptable dumbing down of ambition and standards’ (dead link).
Is there anything special about books?
A further aspect of the debate is whether technological development will render printed books obsolete and whether we should be concerned if it did. Google is bus digitising libraries worth of books [Ref: Times Online] (see Google Book Search [Ref: Google Book Search]) and digitised books could be printed on demand [Ref: Guardian]. Libraries may remain focussed on books, but they won’t necessarily be books as we currently know them. For traditionalists, though, the physical experience of entering the different world of the library and browsing bookshelves remains important. They argue (dead link) that a search engine can only sift information whereas an index of books is the work of a mind with knowledge.
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
Katherine Rushton interviews David Lammy The Bookseller 4 May 2006
Megan Lane BBC News 18 March 2003
Rachel Cooke Observer 11 June 2006
Phillip Pullman The Times 25 March 2006
Marcel Berlins Guardian 25 January 2006
Tim Coates Guardian 7 September 2005
Philip Pettifor spiked 2 September 2005
Helen Rumbelow The Times 26 October 2006
Chris Alden Guardian 22 February 2006
Mark Hepworth Laser Foundation 1 July 2005
Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA)
Idea Store, Tower Hamlets Borough Council
Bryan Appleyard The Sunday Times 21 January 2007
MLA, DCMS and Laser Foundation 1 June 2006
Libri 18 July 2005
Charles Leadbeater Demos 22 May 2003
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Thomas Washington Washington Post 21 January 2007
Brenda Despontin The Times 8 May 2006
Times Online Debate 23 March 2006
Hester Lacey Guardian 17 August 2005
Andrew Cunningham Daily Telegraph 30 June 2005
Audit Commission 17 May 2002
Department for Culture Media and Sport
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.
IN THE NEWS
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
The Sunday Times 21 January 2007
Guardian 17 January 2007
Observer 31 December 2006
The TImes 2 November 2006
Guardian 11 September 2006
Guardian 4 July 2006
BBC News 22 June 2006
Guardian 15 May 2006
The Times 23 March 2006
The Times 21 March 2006
Guardian 4 January 2006
Guardian 4 July 2005
BBC News 13 January 2005
BBC News 18 November 2004
BBC News 1 June 2004
BBC News 27 April 2004
BBC News 13 November 2003
BBC News 18 March 2003
BBC News 16 May 2000
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