Friday, 7 March 2008


During my time in local government I worked on a couple of projects with libraries. Now, I'm not a librarian, but I do know a few, and I know something about what they do and the numerous ways in which they make a real difference to communities.

Sadly, this contribution is lost beneath a mountain of ill-informed comment that, as far as I can tell, completely distorts and renders meaningless library debate.

Take Thursday's Guardian. Author Naomi Alderman is outraged by the appearance of a coffee shop in her local library. She thinks this is somehow symbolic of the death knell of the public library.

Sadly, from the point of view of a sensible discussion on libraries, Naomi hasn't got the faintest idea what she is talking about. Hyperbole replaces fact. Assumptions stand in for reasoned debate, and lying behind it all is a vacuous and dated view of what public libraries should do. She might have a point on the cut in opening hours (an issue for the councillors of the London Borough of Barnet and their electorate - this is still a local service, remember), but her overall view of what libraries do and how they do it is deeply reactionary and elitist.

Naomi is saddened that the periodicals room has been been replaced by a "computer learning zone". How can she possibly view this negatively? Surely the libraries mission is to provide access to information that supports learning? If the learning needs of the local community are best met through ICT provision, then the library is still meeting its historic function in a way Andrew Carnegie would recognise? In the past the provision of books (an information resource) supported learning. Books are now cheaper. The internet is increasingly important but there remains a stubborn digital divide. Providing computers and internet access (an information resource) bridges the digital divide. What on earth could be wrong with that?

Yet Naomi cannot accept this as part of the core purpose of a library, and the reason is depressingly familiar. Naomi has a hidebound view of the role of the public library: "Hendon library was my temple, my treasure house, the place that inspired me to read and then to write. As an adult, I wrote a lot of my first novel there."

No doubt libraries played an important part in the intellectual development of this novelist, but not everyone can be a novelist, and the interests of the novelist (Susan Hill has similar rants) should not dominate public debate over libraries.

As conceived in the 19th century, public libraries supported education and learning, enjoyment and access to information necessary for citizenship - particularly amongst those unable to purchase this for themselves. That mission remains current today. It would be stupid, therefore, in a world in which the end of the net book agreement, the advent of Amazon, and the fact that so much information is now online, for the debate about public libraries to be led by novelists with an entirely inaccurate view of what libraries are for and how they should do it.

Not only do they misunderstand the role of libraries, but they also misrepresent reality. Now, I've never been to Hendon library, and Naomi may well be telling the truth, but to conclude that, "if we keep on the way we are going, one day they will be gone" is ludicrous.

Naomi will no doubt be unfamiliar with things as mundane as public satisfaction surveys, but they tell us that people are generally happy with their library service. Naomi has generalised from the basis of her own experience and analysed that experience on the basis of a misconceived view of the value of public libraries.

Having no knowledge of public services is of course no barrier to having your opinions published on them - especially if you are happily ensconced in the metropolitan elite. Observer journalist Rachel Cooke is another for whom the delight of having a regular column must be tempered with the demand to fill it. Sadly, for libraries, they make for easy copy that you don't have to think too hard about.

As for those of us who might actually have something to contribute to the debate - welcome to the furthest reaches of the blogging universe.

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