The Role and Future of Local Libraries

When I was working full-time for a large R&D company I hardly ever went to local libraries. After reading a few reviews, I simply bought books from Amazon or similar. Quite often I was disappointed in the book and regretted buying it. This criticism mainly applied to business-oriented books which promoted an attractive-sounding idea or premise but often gave fairly insubstantial evidence to back it up.

However they did communicate or increase awareness of a topic that was usually interesting in its own right and had a certain amount of credibility. This is the name of the game of course, they’re not meant to be academic treatises.

When I worked as an independent consultant and had more time but less money I started venturing into libraries a lot more. Coincidentally my local library also had a significant refurbishment making it a much more pleasant place to use. I found that as I had physical space I wandered into many areas I wouldn’t have otherwise (travel, biography, cookery, health etc) so that was an additional benefit (or admittedly sometimes a procrastinating distraction).

I also ordered books, both for the area libraries (as suggestions) and for more technical items through the interlibrary loan system (which links into university libraries as well). I didn’t want to order a book for £25 only to be disappointed, better to pay £2-3 and study it in depth to see if it was really worth buying (unfortunately this price has now increased dramatically).

Currently I’m moving to London with my partner and need to downsize quite considerably. Over the past 25 years I’ve amassed loads of books. Choosing which ones to keep is tricky but in a way, so long as libraries keep going and developing, also not so important. If I need one again I can just use the library (as ordering a book they already have is cheap).

With this in mind it’s sad to read that due to the austerity cuts the role of libraries is decreasing. From the Guardian this week:

Almost 800 libraries have closed since the Conservative-Lib Dem government implemented austerity in 2010, new figures reveal.

The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy’s (Cipfa) annual survey of the UK’s libraries, excluding Northern Ireland, shows there are 3,583 library branches still open in the UK – 35 fewer than last year. Since 2010, 773 have closed…

The number of paid librarians has also plummeted. In 2009/2010, the point marking the start of the Tory-led government’s austerity drive, there were 24,000 salaried staff working in libraries. Last year, there were 15,300 employees and more than 51,000 volunteers.

As the number of branches and paid staff have declined, so have library visits: there were 226m visits to libraries over the last year, compared with 315m in 2009/2010.

Also, on an political note:

Earlier this week, Boris Johnson (current UK PM) was asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr about library closures, with the prime minister appearing to offload the blame on to local authorities, who have undergone dramatic cuts over the past decade. This year, council leaders warned that one in five councils might have to impose drastic spending controls to avoid bankruptcy…

Finally, Mr Johnson appears to suggest that the country can only afford libraries when there has been an economic recovery. As we have commented time and again, this is a fundamentally misguided policy. By investing in libraries, you create opportunities for education and skills across the country, which in turn creates the conditions for future economic growth.

To be fair, it would be helpful to see some evidence for this rather subtle connection (investment leading to growth) from which some new ideas might emerge on how to bring libraries more into the centre of things.

Finally there’s an interesting view from the author Neil Gaiman:

I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.

I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. That’s about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.

It will be interesting to see what the new UK Government decides on this and other matters after the election tomorrow.

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