I’m writing this blog post in response to a challenge from Voices for the Library to try to envisage what the public library of the 21st century should be like. This is quite a hard thing to do - because, in order to get your thoughts on this subject straight, the first task is to free them from the straitjacket in which they are customarily imprisoned, whether you still notice that or not.
By this I mean ceasing to make the cost-cutters’ and library sceptics’ arguments for them, a particularly insidious form of self-censorship. I’ve spent a few days mulling this over and found myself in a bind: if I say what I actually think then a very persuasive inner critic starts shouting: “But they’ll only say, ‘Who do you expect to PAY for all this?’”
Turning this voice off is quite hard but I have silenced it with irrefutable arguments based on the thought experiment of an ideal local authority somewhere which has responded to the fact that libraries create more value than they consume and offered to fund some accordingly. Thus I am not going to succumb to the constant calls to be unselfish, pragmatic, practical or to worship at the clay feet of deficit reduction. No, I’m going to say what I actually think.
(These views are, of course, entirely personal and don’t reflect those of any organisation that I am associated with through a business, employment or membership relationship. In other words, mind of my own, views of my own.)
Two out of three ain’t bad
I’ve come to the conclusion that public libraries are not doing too badly on two of the three essentials, but the third is a sizeable problem for them. By this I mean that they are clearly acing the customer service and the stock situation is not too bad, not least because we can create networks to share the resources we do have. But the buildings, and the level of investment in them, are arguably our biggest weak point.
To expand on the customer service thing. I believe that, when we do this well, we generally do it better than almost any other category of organisation. Of course there are some grumpy or old-fashioned people and others not doing their job. And people will always have off days. There are also often organisational or financial restrictions that mean we simply can’t provide everything people want us to. But generally people do feel genuinely welcome at the library and they get a level of friendly, face-to-face service that most of the commercial and a lot of the public sector would find hard to match. We are great at this and have things to teach a great many businesses and institutions, a point we should be making forcefully. Or running seminars and charging steep fees, ho ho.
I do think that self-service has a place in the 21st century library. Not least because for every person that hates it there is another that thinks it’s the best thing libraries have done in years. I also think it has seriously reduced the potential for arguments to start between customers and staff - if people find they have a fine or other account problem they have a chance to privately absorb the information and satisfy themselves what is going on before they need to make their case to another person. This makes the library foyer a much calmer place to be in than it was a few years ago.
But I (and a lot of other library people that I’ve discussed this with) do think that people should have a choice. I like the set-up where the kiosks are the first thing that you encounter but a desk with live people on it is clearly visible in your line of sight. I think that, if a customer would rather visit the desk than use the kiosk, they are arguably perfectly within their rights to do that. I also think that unstaffed self-service is a dreadfully risky proposition, with the potential to permanently alienate users who can’t easily achieve what they need to, driving them out of the library for good. It is, furthermore, extremely hard to justify within most existing customer service policies and standards.
The stuff we have
And so to stock. Stock is potentially infinite. There is no budget that could satisfy our cravings for everything we would like to have in our collections. But there are a few things that square this seemingly unsquareable circle - and most of them are based on networks and sharing the resources that each library and authority does invest in. First of all is the wonderful inter-library loans service which gives us access to potentially any library book in the UK. I think networks like this are an essential part of our networked 21st century society. Also, subscriptions to online reference resources and ebooks have the potential to vastly extend the range of resources that users have access to. Consortia I have mixed feelings about. On the plus side, I really like the idea that users have easy access to a wider range of library holdings and can use their cards in more than one authority. It’s sort of what we’d like about a national UK library card, an idea whose time is long overdue. But on the minus side I’m rather uncomfortable about the potential for consortia based on shared use of a proprietary library management system to tip over into a privatised service, a problem that a member of Voices for the Library actually alerted me to.
And stock is definitely both books and e-resources. I love books and surround myself with them - my house has more books in it than any other kind of object, they fill every surface and inhabit every room if not scrutinised constantly and chased back to their proper places, which usually includes the library. I also believe very firmly that the book-as-object has important qualities not shared by e-texts. I value the e-text’s portability, its searchability, the beautiful flexibility of the written word in a digital format. I appreciate that, on a digital device I can make the page look however I find it easiest to read. I love the idea of taking 10 novels on holiday - but their only weighing a few grams - as much as the next bibliophile.
But the physical book is a tried and tested means of preserving knowledge whereas e-texts are worryingly ephemeral. And books carry a history of your use, and of others’ use which is a crucial part of their value. They look and smell beautiful and are a joy to read and live with in a way that an e-text isn’t. I also know exactly what I can do with any book I buy - the format is not subject to battery life, recharging points, wi-fi signals, restrictive digital rights management or the sun not shining at them in the wrong way. Though I grant you they become useless if dropped in the bath. So my 21st-century library is stacked to the rafters with good-quality well-maintained books as well as having a jaw-dropping collection of electronic reference resources and subscriptions, and e-books that people can use with the device of their choice and with a reasonable level of assistance in troubleshooting problems.
Bricks and mortar buildings
This is the place where I think years of restrictions on local authority/public sector spending and budgeting have caused the severest problems - a phenomenon that has caused such dreadful difficulties for schools and seen ideas like Private Finance Initiatives coming a cropper for hospitals. Libraries are often perceived as shabby and dingy and, where they’re not, it’s often a result of action taken despite the condition of the underlying building.
I want my library of the future to be a lovely place that people are clamouring to visit. I want it to be in an accessible, well-located building with reasonable parking and public transport facilities nearby. I want it open all hours of the day, evening and weekend and I want it to be so comfortable, verging on the cosy even, that I don’t really want to get up and leave. I want nice chairs, nice carpets, nice furniture, nice toilets and no funny smells or peculiar stains anywhere. I think people respond to nice surroundings by respecting them more than shabby ones. I want art on the walls. I want plentiful locker space for my coat and bag and a place to get a hot drink and a snack. I want a lovely, enticing display of magazines and newspapers to distract me from what I came in for. I want community rooms and space for events and exhibitions. I want maker space. I want adequate dedicated desk space with power sockets for laptop users and reliable wi-fi connections as well as fixed PCs in a computer suite. I want all unnecessary restrictions on what you can do with the computers abolished. I want the library website to be high-concept and as cool as fuck and commissioned by someone who really understands about the web and accessibility and user-centred design - rather than being rigidly tied to a local authority offering or handed down by a LMS supplier. I want to find my local library active and engaged on Twitter and Facebook.
I want a building design that recognises the possiblity for noise leakage and contains it, so quiet study and noisy storytimes are equally possible. I want social areas where people can chat and collaborate - and peaceful thinking space where users are asked to respect the conditions of entry and those conditions are enforced. I think university libraries have got a lot of this right and I would like to see more collaboration between this sector and public libraries including, where feasible, the sharing of facilities. I want the joyous serendipity of browsing along long runs of shelving. I want new books and old books and ebooks and things that aren’t books at all. I want to see experts respected for their expertise and words like collaboration and innovation reclaimed for our side. I want to meet staff with the freedom to respond to their users’ needs without having to consult up a long chain of authority - as good a definition of localism as any other. I want the opportunity to talk to a librarian who specialises in the areas I’m interested in and to know the regular times and days on which they will be available at a desk in a branch. I want reader development experts developing readers and information literacy champions championing just that. I want catalogues that assist users in finding stuff rather than causing them frustration.
Damn proud of what we do
I want public libraries that are proud of what they do and have the confidence that comes from knowing they can hold their own among any other organisation from the commercial, public or non-profit sector. I want us to stop apologising and building renewed faith in what we do instead. I want the sceptics won over and the cynics silenced when it becomes clear their specious arguments simply can’t hold water. I want a library in every community that wants one, staffed by valued professional and para-professional people, as well as forming fruitful, mutually beneficial, well-managed and non-exploitative relationships with people who want to give their time as volunteers.
To sum up: It’s time we worked out where we left our bows and arrows, spears and chariots. Jerusalem’s more than half-builded here already. All we have to do in this century is finish the job rather than standing by while the dark forces pull it down stone by stone.