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Valuing Public Libraries

Birmingham Public LibraryI attended a debate last night run jointly by the Birmingham Salon and CILIP West Midlands about ‘What Libraries are for’. It was an interesting evening and I really enjoyed hearing peoples views on libraries, whether they should be a quiet sanctuary, hired space for communities, running vegetable contests, space to inspire learning etc.

It also got me thinking about what public libraries mean to me and in particular it’s the aspect of social inclusion that really appeals.

During the debate there were numerous mentions of ebooks and ebook readers & their impact on the library. Personally I am not sure how much of a driver this is to re-invent the library, while these are available they are still not accessible to everyone unlike a public library. I do use my phone for reading but that hasn’t replaced all my print books and I don’t imagine it will do for some time. Someone raised the point of ‘are libraries just a warehouse of books or a space to inspire learning’. As the book industry evolves and new technologies arise I think it offers libraries more opportunities to evolve services and continue to provide access to information.

Another  key point that was raised during the debate was the about the library being a service not a building. This made me wonder whether success is still being measured through footfall of the physical space as libraries continue widen access further and deliver services out to communities as well as providing the information to your desktop.

From a personal point of view I have always been a keen user of public libraries, they have & continue to provide me with information, resources, the space etc. As a child libraries gave me the opportunity to indulge in my love of reading which in turn led me to aspire to learn more, become educated, go to university, find a profession. Libraries helped me level the playing field providing me with the same opportunities as others.

Looking back I have been regularly using public libraries at least once a month over the last 20 years and really appreciate the chance to discover new authors, new recipes to try, indulge in my aspiration to be creative through numerous self help and guide books.  I have enjoyed seeing collections evolve, introduction of multi-media, e-resources, PCs, integration of local services etc. In many cases some have been more successful than others but I have always appreciated the efforts to keep the marvellous public service alive in times of clear under investment and resource.

I now have a little boy who we’ve taken to the library since he was a week old. While we are fortunate to be able to provide him with a collection of books at home, we could never match what is available in the library. Its great to see his evolving use of the library, from crawling to the box to throw books out to beginning to look through and choose himself and now even tentatively foray into the non-fiction. He loves having the choice to try things out, see if its interests him find out about what he likes and dislikes.

A key word that continues to keep coming back to me with public libraries is the opportunities they provide to help people fill their potential


1 Andrea { 09.23.10 at 3:23 pm }

I was at the same debate, and I was very struck by the question of ‘relevance’ and only providing ‘valuable’ or ‘quality’ literature in libraries. I fear that if libraries use an ‘Academie Franciase’ type of paradigm, and become the arbiters of quality or worthwhile books, and only provide the material that meets those demanding standards, then our stock and buildings will remain pristine, since the large majority of the public will then satisfy their information and leisure needs elsewhere, without troubling us at the library!

On the other hand, I don’t think we should underestimate our users and jump to conclusions about the type of books they do want – older ladies taking family sagas, teenage Mums wanting ghost-written celebrity autobiographies etc etc – I’m sure we have all heard the stereotypes. Exhorting people from the sidelines to read the best material available (whatever that is), cannot be as effective as really engaging with our users, and encouraging, suggesting or helping them on their reading journey through life, can it? Opportunities is definitely the key word.

I love to chat to borrowers about their books and often follow up their recommendations in my own reading, as well as making my own suggestions to them, but staffing levels can make this difficult.

In any case, it was lovely and very interesting to hear other people’s views last night on the philosophy and future of libraries.

2 Chris keene { 09.23.10 at 6:17 pm }

Agree that the possibilities they offer to children, and helping to provide a level playing field, are probably two of the strongest points of libraries.

Watching the event you went to last night prompted me to write a post as well. Only mine was a rush of tired thoughts splatted on to s page.


3 Gareth Osler { 09.25.10 at 8:02 pm }

Facilitating the people of a society in being able to reach their full potential is very much a government aim as well (citations on request :)

4 Library Web { 10.15.10 at 9:36 am }

“A key word that continues to keep coming back to me with public libraries is the opportunities they provide to help people fill their potential.”

I like the way your last word in your post is ‘potential’ :)

There is a discussion on Radio 4′s Today programme at the moment asking what the word fairness means (@r4today #fairness). Now equity motivation is very real, people act on feelings of fairness. One definition of ‘fair’ read out was that fairness was slicing the apple down the middle such that you are willing to let your worst enemy choose which half. Another definition was being able to reach the potential you were naturally born with. You do in fact want your full ‘half’ of the slice of the apple out of life.

Libraries are recognised as being a great equalizer in society. If what we expect out of life is no more than what is fairly our potential, then without reasonable library provision it would be a less equitable society. We can expect a reasonable library service.

Unfulfilled potential,

I like the allusion that can be drawn from the juxtaposition of the picture of the acorn titled ‘Unfulfilled potential’ and the picture of the garden on smilylibrarian’s blog :) Were we all not once small acorns in the big garden of society.


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