Why limiting access to libraries is a very bad idea

By Onlineability,

A lot of our time and energy is going at the moment on the campaign to defend local and nationwide library services against swingeing local authority cuts that threaten the basis of the entire institution in the UK. Here in Hertfordshire we can regard ourselves as lucky, to the limited extent that the county council has decided not to close any branches, and has indicated an encouraging willingness to reconsider opening hours if and when its funding position improves. It has also somewhat shielded the less-affluent town of Stevenage.

However, elsewhere in the north of the county, we are still seeing our library opening hours cut by nearly half – which is a tragedy for all those people who rely on them. This is, clearly, a much better situation than that faced in places where local authorities are threatening up to three quarters of branches. But this is not a situation where our victory would mean someone else’s loss, and we are still seeing a drastic and avoidable reduction in one of our most important community services.

The real battles being fought in this war are the ones to overcome some of the preconceptions that people have about libraries and the people that work in them – and to make the case for the absolutely crucial role of the information professional in modern society. Why do we at Onlineability care, and why do we take the time to do it on our blog? Because we are these information professionals. Everything we do in our working lives is about encouraging good access to good information. Thus, although we have no clients in the library sector or any direct financial stake in it, the libraries debate is right at the heart of what we do. We are absolutely convinced that the skills of people who can curate information, and assist people towards finding reliable facts, or helpful and informed commentary, is the future of information architecture, librarianship and website development as these professions converge over the next couple of decades.

One popular claim is that libraries are some kind of profligate publicly-funded indulgence for the middle classes. Not so. Simply pop along to Stevenage Central or Luton Central if you want to subject this proposition to an empirical test. Leaving aside the basic illogicality of the claim (because presumably if a library serves a predominantly middle- or working-class area, then surely its users will simply reflect its overall demographics) it is a fact that libraries provide a lifeline to the less well-off. Free picture books, reading books and activities for the kids. Facilities if you’re looking for a job. Internet access with a better connection than the one you might be able to afford at home – if you can afford one at all. Information on your rights. Friendly faces. Help. And – perhaps most importantly of all – a welcome in a place where you don’t have to spend money to belong.

The author Philip Pullman gets this absolutely right in his must-read speech on the subject. He says: “But one of the few things that make life bearable for the young mother in [a disadvantaged] community at the moment is a weekly story session in the local library, the one just down the road. She can go there with the toddler and the baby and sit in the warmth, in a place that’s clean and safe and friendly, a place that makes her and the children welcome.” But do check out the whole speech, because it’s as good a manifesto for libraries, and communities, and culture, and all the other things that make life worth living as you will ever read.

Another objection is that libraries exist in a sort of bubble dating back to the 1950s. The people citing this have not been into a branch recently themselves, if ever, and are therefore labouring under the misapprehension that they would be greeted by a stern lady with a her hair in bun and horn-rimmed glasses going: “Sssh!” They picture shelves of dusty old books and not much more and they claim that people evince a kind of nostalgia for the places that is reminiscent of Woolworths – they want to see it on the high street but don’t actually want to shop there.

Wrong, and wrong again. Libraries have a lot of books, and a lot of those are popular fiction – let’s not be too snobbish about that, either. But they also have quite a lot of 21st-century innovations, for example being able to negotiate ebook agreements with publishers that are arguably more advantageous than we can achieve as individual consumers. For instance, I worry about ebooks. If I buy an electronic copy of a book, will I be able to use it on more than one platform or device? Can I legally make a back-up, or pass it on to a friend? Is there some other restriction on how I can use it that I might fall foul of without even knowing about? Is it crippled with digital rights management (DRM) software that means I would be better off with a paper copy about which I understand exactly what I have bought and what that entitles me to do?

But if I borrow an ebook from a library, none of that is my problem. I borrow it, read it and enjoy the level of access and commitment that I would with any other form of library borrowing. That’s something I find very valuable. Also, the possession of a UK library card entitles me, for example, to access to the subscriber-only online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, and there are many other journals and subscription services available depending on the agreements negotiated by different local authorities. All these issues are right up at the forefront of the information revolution that we’ve been living through for the last decade and more.

Libraries are central to their communities. For example, you may have noticed that public space is becoming a bit of an endangered species. These days you might find your local town centre patrolled by security guards who have views on what you can and can’t do there and who aren’t answerable to the same clear rules as police officers are. Also, the government is currently engaged on a project to sell the nation’s publicly-owned forests and woodlands to private owners with the likely consequence that public access to an important recreational facility will be severely limited. There has, in fact, been a very effective move by right-leaning, market-minded types over the last couple of decades to try to portray public space and public services of these kinds as places and services of last resort.

Therefore, if you visit the library instead of a swish bookshop with a café, take public transport instead of using a car, rent from a housing association instead of taking on a mortgage that stretches your finances to the limit, or visit a local authority leisure centre instead of paying for a swanky gym, you are portrayed as a loser, or a selfish individual who expects the state to subsidise them. We need to recognise both these stereotypes for the propaganda that they are and start loudly championing our public services again. Not least because the notion of public space – the place where we meet people who are different from us, and learn that actually our differences are mostly exaggerated – is crucial to the formation of communities. Public libraries are a big component of that public space and we should be fighting tooth and claw to defend them.

Limiting access to libraries is also a very bad idea for local authorities however superficially appealing the chance to make spending cuts might seem – and here’s why. Learning and communities – two things at the heart of what councils are about, and also a pretty good working definition of the underpinnings of libraries. They are almost always housed in accessible town-centre facilities and staffed by knowledgeable, friendly, IT-literate people who understand how to work with information and who generally have excellent customer service training. Councils should be leveraging all this as an advertisement and delivery point for their services, not trying to keep the public away from them.

As information professionals, it’s arguable that we have all been very bad at telling people about what we do. Certainly this is true in web development, with people understanding the role of the coder and the designer but not realising the importance of the professional building a sound structure, navigation and labelling system from the outset, one that is based on an intelligent assessment of what the site’s prospective users actually want and need. This whole libraries debate has reminded us at Onlineability that it’s time for our profession to start blowing its trumpets very loudly. In an information age, the skills of the information professional are invaluable. People are going to start hearing a lot more about us all.

• Find out more about standing up for library services by visiting the campaign website Voices For The Library.

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