What is the point of the public library?

I'm listening to a BBC Radio broadcast on the history and purpose of the public libraries of Britain. These are some of my thoughts:

So taxes where once levied with a dual purpose: one to pay for the establishment of a public library; and two, to encourage people to use what they have already paid for to better themselves through this communal opportunity for self-education.

Part of this history was that lost requirement of the individual to prove his worthiness to join the community of the library. Now, we just ask for some identification, but originally, there were many more hurdles to overcome before one could qualify for membership in a public library. Residents used to beg to be let in, but now it's the libraries that seem to be begging people to join: what happened?

Modern libraries seem to be in constant motion chasing relevance. "Stay relevant!" is the current mantra. But what is relevant? Is literacy relevant? Are job skills relevant? Are DVDs and streaming video relevant?

Libraries never used to compete with the local book, music and video stores. We bought classics and educational materials. We bought new books, but only after they had been on the bestseller list for a few weeks.

And then we decided to provide popular books and music and movies, but maybe a couple of months after release. But now we have the movies and albums the week of release. And what has happened to the local book and music and movie stores? They are gone. Have libraries contributed to that demise, or can we safely blame Walmart and Amazon?

The public library used to define community behavior by requiring members to have sponsors, etc, but is now, has become the servant of that behavior. Should the public library set a standard that is above societal expectations? Should the library have the role of requiring people to become better versions of themselves? How can we reconcile that traditional role of self-education and social betterment with wanting to be popular? Clearly, telling the public that they should work to better their education or social skills is not going to make libraries popular. Is it more important to be popular today?

But libraries are still playing those ancient games whereby some people qualify for library services and some don't. We have computer labs and teen areas and downloadable stuff and game nights. And if you don't fit in by being the right age or having the right equipment or skills, then you're not really welcome.

So far, I've been listening to the recorded broadcast and using it for inspiration while I'm typing. But at the 17:20 mark, I feel like I have to comment directly on what I'm hearing. The librarian is talking about Silence. I don't know about you, but it takes some effort for me to remain silent. It's not too difficult to be somewhat quiet, but it's really hard for me to be silent. But when it was an exercise in self-discipline for me to attempt to be quiet when I was a kid, it now seems like, according to this librarian, that we are actually torturing young people if we ask them to be quiet. Actual torture. So how can libraries attempt to appear welcoming to young people if we expect them to be quiet while they are here? If we are torturing them with silence?

Libraries have traditionally been a symbol of permanence. A town with its own library could feel confident that its citizens had a reason to stick around and help the town grow, that a source of knowledge was there, that the library added value to the town.

But with all knowledge now online, where is that community sentiment, that feeling of permanence? Do libraries represent anything these days other than free videos? Is anyone proud of their library and boast about it to their friends?

One of my favorite movie (play) quotes is this, from Becket:

King: You never loved me, did you Becket?
Becket: In so far as I was capable of love, yes, my prince, I did.
King: Did you start to love God?
Becket: I started to love the honor of God.

I feel this way about the honor of libraries. That, either by design or by nature, they require us to better ourselves. When a library is stocked with classic works, we want to act as if we are worthy of their contents. But when your library is stocked with Rob Schneider movies, well...

I always felt that libraries represented some symbol or goal that we could aspire toward. The public library wasn't a mirror reflecting back on society where people would look to see themselves, but maybe it was a window where they could look through to see... something? If eyes are the windows to the soul, then windows are the windows to the.... And it was definitely not a fun house mirror, where all becomes a freakish mockery of society.

You can say that I have a right-wing view of libraries that believes people can and should better themselves, but that would mean that your left-wing view says that they can't and shouldn't.

There will always be someone who says that there is nothing in the library for them. But maybe those are just horrible people. I mean, nothing? Dante, the history of Hip Hop, the Gossip Girl series, James Patterson, DH Lawrence, Poppy Z. Brite,... nothing???

The only good thing that may come from all the modernization and all the attention to electronics and "giving the people what they want" is that one day, the library will have moved so far away from its original mission that the idea of giving people a quiet place to explore ideas might be viewed as something new. One day. But I'll probably be dead by then.

So I guess my message is that libraries have a purpose and a point. But I, for damn sure, could not begin to tell you what that should be. I just work here.


I think the libraries' values are complex here, and still yet to be fully worked out. If a library sets about providing what the community it serves wants, then it is meeting the needs of the library, their values and culture, their beliefs, and that is all anybody really has to go on. If you start putting a lot of material in the library that the community has no use for then that is no use to anyone. The antithesis is along the same lines as that for losing the publishing industry, as we are slowly at the moment with e-books -- if we don't have an editor separating the wheat out from the chaff, drawing attention to the best, then society is going to wallow around in mediocrity instead of moving forward on the crest of that which is of most value. But again I would argue that the beliefs of a person should be respected fully, and that what is highly valued by one person isn't necessarily by another (our beliefs are as varied as our personalities). How about if I were to say a library should strip both the snobbery and reverse snobbery from literature, making sure that the libraries' value is recognised amongst all parties as being a repository of the written record of a nation and the literary arts of a nation/civilization -- made by librarians accessible to anyone -- and that all cultures are respected equally. (The fundamental value here is the right to roam freely in our world, to be what we can be---freedom and our culture being inseparable---if anything this is what is being heist on people, not a culture that is not of immediate importance and worth.) So while the deposit libraries hold copies of every UK publication, it is the job of a community library to raise the culture of a community, meeting the needs of that community. In this way a community can raise itself (the reason why any self-respecting community should make sure its librarian gets out of bed in the morning in the first place ;) I like the definition of a civilization as being the degree to which the needs of the people are met. As a community raises its culture, then the needs of the community should increasingly be met (this is the value chain in action).

That was a long paragraph, but this is a long subject.

I'd like to read more but unfortunately there are not a lot of e-books that I can download from my library at 2.30 am on the subject (my values ;)

I'm not sure of the classification for the subject (LCC or Dewey, I'd have to consult a librarian ;) However if it is exists it will be quite fine grained. This is Bob Usherwoods book:

Equity and Excellence in the Public Library
Why Ignorance is Not our Heritage
Bob Usherwood, The University of Sheffield, UK

(Which does actually have an e-book edition, Ashgate Pub. 2007, perhaps the BL could be pursuaded to purchase a copy two :)

Line 3 above should actually read:

'meeting the needs of the community, their values and culture, their beliefs, and that'

And not:

'meeting the needs of the library, their values and culture, their beliefs, and that'

Maybe the publisher mentioned above is focusing on an Art form, while a community needs to focus in its values. If at any point there is ever a union of the former and latter, I'm not sure. I'll leave that to a part II I think :)

Library Web

I'm sure a community--having nominated a librarian to be its expert on the ground on the subject of the library and to advise as the community's appointed servant--would be quite happy to listen to a librarian's assessment of the worth of literature to a community, but there does have to be a proper assessment there. But having said that most(?) library authorities no longer have a librarian in a community library, and so a community will have to make do with a sort of 'generalisation' of service, erring largely to an abstraction of the needs of the 300,000 or so population in the library authority as a whole. Which is OK I guess as long as the community know this [which they don't], and the libraries are still used [to varying degrees]. Maybe the libraries could return to putting a librarian (pref. qualified at a strategic management level also) into communities where the cost could be justified.

I really must go to bed now!

I've spent about 45 mins dredging a metaphor out from the depths. Maybe a community is like a snowflake. Each one unique and individual (much like ourselves). I don't think scientists know exactly why each flake is unique, something to do with conditions at a molecular level when the snowflake began to form being different for each flake. Much in the same way the cultural landscape is somewhat uneven to say the least.

"You can say that I have a right-wing view of libraries that believes people can and should better themselves, but that would mean that your left-wing view says that they can't and shouldn't."

I'm tired of people assigning opinions to other people based on what they think that liberalism means or what conservatism means. Do you really mean to say that only conservatives think that people should use public libraries to better themselves?

the "right-wing" belief goes directly with the journalist's statements...

Sure, the common person has forgotten what a public library is for again. Perhaps you need a slogan, be listed on FourSquare, or be passed around on Facebook application's 'Superpoke'. I see elderly and young parents use it as a free recreation hot spot. Even better if library was close to (a) Shops or a mall with 3 hour parking (b) BBQ friendly park. Public Library needs to revamp its image but their vision should remain as free source of books and information access.