Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Thoughts on public libraries

Just before Christmas, my Twitter stream was dominated by two themes.  The first was the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), which had finally concluded a process of evaluating the research outputs of the UK’s Higher Education institutions, and announced its rankings of the winners and losers in this curious 6-yearly academic beauty contest. The euphoria, disappointment and schadenfreude were palpable through the ether. Fortunately, the passive aggressive swiping reached its nadir just at the point where everyone decided it was time to shut up shop for the holidays. It’s almost as though they planned it that way.

The second was the announcement of cuts to local libraries, as the tail end of the credit crunch began to really kick public services in England and Wales. Cardiff announced a series of significant cuts to Library services, including budget cuts for the wonderful Central Library, and the loss of seven branch libraries; Birmingham announced a consultation on cuts to public services that included worrying developments for the City’s libraries, including the magnificent Library of Birmingham (which the City recently invested £188 million in developing ). For a wonderful eulogy to Birmingham’s Libraries, see this passionate lament by Robert McNichol.

The stories are, of course, linked. How many REF superstars got their start in their local library? How many people who went on the research the arts, sciences, or medicine passed their O-level exams because they were able to work in their local library after school or on weekends? I’m no academic star, but the local library was an absolutely central part of my education. I was the first in my family to go to University, and the library was where I went when I needed to do to work on homework or projects. When I was at primary school, I was enormously fortunate to have a decent public library near our house in Essex – I could even go there myself on the bus. I also used the magnificent Mitchell Library on holidays in Glasgow, and the Hamburg central library for High School research. This experience enabled me to develop what we now call information literacy: the understanding that no matter how daunting the task at hand, there was a starting point. This could be in the form of a book with references to other books; a cataloguing system that enabled you to find them; or when all else failed (ok, let’s be honest, quite often the starting point), asking a librarian for help. There was also peace and quiet, a space to think and work, and the idea that there was a physical and intellectual place for work, and study, and thought. There was also the idea that working, reading, and studying was a good thing to do: Taking the bus to the Hamburg Central Library and spending a rainy Saturday researching Acid Rain (yes, I am that old) for a school project, was, well, kind of cool. And so I discovered what Betty Smith called 'the magic of learning things.' 

Those of us who owe a lot to public libraries need to defend them. The best way to do this is to use them – take your kids to the local library. Borrow books rather than buying them. And while you are at it, meet your neighbors and find out what’s going on locally. We need to defend libraries, but the best way to do this is to develop a better understanding of how they serve users: they provide services that you may not even know about, like electronic resources (subscription-only genealogy services, and electronic resources, are available in public libraries in Wales, for example) and journals. They are still training people in information literacy, but now they are also many people’s best opportunity for developing digital literacy and navigating online sources. This matters when information is increasingly digital by default. 

But we need also to develop better evidence about the deeper impact of public libraries. Again, think of all the world-class research internationally carried out by scholars who got started in their local library. Multiply this over time. One of my PhD students, Calista Williams (@Ca7ista), is working on an AHRC-funded collaborative doctoral award with the Open University and the National Library of Wales. Her project includes analysis of the early readers of the National Library of Wales, and their subsequent publications and research. Historical Network Analysis of these library patrons, their publications, and their connections and influence, is showing some interesting patterns. Adopting a similar approach to assess the global impact of the research by those who started out as readers of public libraries would start to create an insight into incredible value of these institutions, and their services. This would also make a fascinating research project, and provide concrete evidence of the risk we will face as a society if we lose our public libraries.

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