dreaming libraries

This blogpost was commissioned by @WandaShapiro's blog www.onegirlonenovel.com 
for Library Lovers' Month    

Public Libraries in the UK are under serious threat. Every media conversation on the need to make tough choices about cuts to public services seems to begin with the line, “For instance, libraries…” Somehow the big question isn’t how to wreak revenge on the financial sector, but whether society can afford those buildings full of books in these cash-strapped, banker-stuffed days.
Mind you, the library service has always been looked upon as a soft option for councils in need of savings, but, as politicians realize when they try to axe them, the public outcry against library closures is always loud and heartfelt. People who haven’t stepped inside their local library for years, howl with outrage at the idea of it disappearing. No councillor wants to close the branch in their ward; it symbolizes a lot to too many of their potential voters.
I first worked for libraries in Sheffield in the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher was in power and cuts were a regular feature of life. Every publicly funded service or organisation seemed to be in a constant process of restructuring which inevitably involved less money and resources at  each iteration.
In Sheffield the libraries then had a visionary leader called Patricia Coleman who brought in the likes of me to develop community arts and publishing projects. I followed her when she moved to Birmingham to run the biggest network of libraries in the country. We ran some amazing projects which promoted libraries as an Imagination Service, a cultural breathing space where people of all kinds could be, by rights and for free, treated with dignity and a sort of warm anonymity which matters to us all, but especially to those on the fringes of society for whom libraries offer a crucial sense of security, defining them as free citizens not social problems. Libraries provide a service to everyone – children, parents, students, adult learners, keen readers, the poor and dispossessed, the lonely and the somewhat strange.
Back in Birmingham in the 1990s we held an annual ‘Meet The Decade’ day in the run up to the Millennium, with staff dressed in the correct clothes for the era of the year, we set up community publishing and creative reading schemes which were handmade precursors of print on demand and web writing communities, and ran many more events and stunts. My favourite of the arts projects I curated looked at the issue of Silence. Artworks, writing workshops, book displays on everything from censorship to meditation, and even a performance by a percussionist, all challenged users to think deeply about how we could create a space that stimulated quiet study and creative dreaming without enforcing a stony hush. When is silence oppressive and intimidating, when relaxing and liberating, and what level of sound do we feel most comfortable with? Do you find it easier to concentrate with music playing and a buzz of chatter, or would you prefer utter soundlessness?
It’s been wonderful to see libraries growing stronger again in the decade or so before the crash: book stock and computer provision improving, opening hours expanding to actually include the times people are free to visit. Now the axe swings down once again.
It’s time to speak out about how much we still need these kinds of public spaces, these intellectual parklands, cathedrals of investigation and creativity, bridges of the digital divide, giving all of us access not just to the internet but to a living network which gives us all a place on the local, national and global cultural landscape. The library is still at the heart of a cohesive community and the impact of any closures will be proved, I am convinced, to be absolutely as detrimental to people’s wellbeing and survival as cuts to benefits, education and health services.
But let’s be honest about how the world has changed. All those with a laptop and wifi now have constant access to a massive, free library of information, and they’re on a network too which allows them to converse with the world. There is a very real digital divide, but smart phones and wi-fi zones are narrowing the gap. Paperback books are still relatively cheap to buy. There isn’t much in the average local library that couldn’t be found elsewhere quite easily. 
And yet we still need two things absolutely: 1) inspiring, inclusive local spaces for thinking, writing and browsing. 2) access for all to professional advisers who can help us to find exactly what we need, be it advice on bankruptcy or the very latest research into a favourite writer. Perhaps less important now are the mid-range collections of physical stuff. I’d go for local browsing libraries, with a café, good spaces to sit and work, pods for groups to meet and talk in, and some excellent staff providing quality librarianship, linked to fewer, seriously comprehensive storehouses of words.
In 2008 Bob Stein, founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book, set up a series of roundtable discussions, in London, New York and San Francisco, about the Really Modern Library. He invited an array of experts including representatives of the British and New York Public Libraries and Arts Council England, writer Cory Doctorow, musician and blogger Momus – even the legendary performer Laurie Anderson. His intention was to explore the issues involved in digital storage of analogue artifacts; the main theme to emerge from these gatherings was the issue of what kinds of inspiring spaces we will need to bring our private, digital libraries to in future. Library services should be creating these spaces – and playing a key role in ensuring that the web can develop into an ever more useable free library, not just a dodgy shop window for corporate and ideological interests.  
What public buildings will we need in future? It’s a pressing topic that goes way beyond library provision. When all purchases are cheaper online, what spurs us to go out shopping? We want to walk about our city centres in our free time, to mingle with like minds and exchange money for things, but the driving need to do this has gone. In that context libraries are the spaces of the future, symbolizing citizenship, learning and empowerment, their staff experts in providing a community hub which isn’t based on commerce.
Now at my local library in Hornsey, North London, we’ve created The Unlibrary, a space for co-working and collaboration. It has wifi, a sofa, tables and chairs. On one wall users create their profiles: email addresses or twitter names supplemented by  assemblages of photos, drawings and objects which make some kind of statement about their owner. On the other wall is a space for notices, where people can find others to help them – to illustrate their book or teach them social networking skills, to join their book group or help with a business plan. Brilliantly the Unlibrary (@theunlibrary on twitter) sits between the café and the reference library, one room to be louder in, one to be silent.
The Unlibrary is a space we’ve been allowed to occupy, we unlibrarians, Anke Holst and I,  two volunteers whose areas of work could gain from our involvement in creating this innovative service. Anke is a social media consultant, I run if:book, funded to research and explore the future all things book related in the digital age.
The Unlibrary is open to all library users, targeted at those writers and creative sole traders who will also use the Unlibrary as a base to work and to promote themselves from. It encourages local entrepreneurialism too -  already the Unlibrary has spawned our conference on the Amplified Writer, courses on digital publishing and social media for local businesspeople, and a plan for a Portable Bookshop to fill the void left by the closure of the local independent bookseller, victim of Amazon and its own failure to become a centre for readers, not just a store.
Next we’re planning a Night at the Library at which we’ll show films such as Fahrenheit 451and Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (in which angels listen into the thoughts of library users – my favourite library film). Overnight a group of writers and artists will collaborate on creating a digital book of library dream stories –and we’ll hold a debate about the libraries of our dreams. Let’s not fall back on battling for everything to stay the same, let’s talk about where information and imagination services could and should go next.
The new Government tells us we must all volunteer to help build ‘The Big Society.’ So far this concept seems to appeal more to the anarchist left (of which I’d kind of call myself a member) than the free market right it’s designed to appeal to.
What we all resist like mad though is having our activities branded by the State which is refusing to support us. Yes, local services need reinvigorating and the web provides new tools for self organisation. There’s work to be done to make libraries hum – and that involves more local people feeling closely involved with them, but if they no longer function as serious, professional services, they’ll go nowhere. We need information professionals to help us all, especially those with few resources and outside of formal education, but libraries have mostly failed to provide guidance on social media and its potential for collaborative consumption and informal learning. Bureaucracy, firewalls and apathy block change.
The Unlibrary aims to be a hub for the local writing community, a space for people to run informal groups for learning and creating, a community that has a building to meet in but isn’t bound to it, a nearby place to find advice on latest apps and sites and what’s best to do with them, a safe place for people with similar interests to meet in the flesh after finding each other on line, where you can replicate that online trick of clicking on people to find out more about them.   
We all need to fight to ensure that libraries survive. And we must think together about how to use digital means to make libraries great again. Let’s clear away our habits and assumptions about what form they’ll take in the future but go back to first principals: the right of all to have free access to the storehouse of human knowledge and creativy; the right of all to a place on the map of our culture; our need for physical spaces at the heart of our communities where together we can think and learn and dream.  


Nick Adler said…
Very Interesting topic. I have a long love of libraries, have gone to one or another all my life. In strange new cities on visits, it is always comforting to find the local library. I met my wife (of 30 years)...where else, at a library).

Thanks for sharing.

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