libraries unchained

Here's if:book's guest post forthe ENVISIONING THE LIBRARY OF THE FUTURE blog run by Arts Council England.

At the weekend I met a man who is restoring a Wurlitzer juke box, recreating a beautiful device, fascinating to old music lovers like me, but clearly redundant as a means to deliver tunes to the populace.

if:book UK has been at the forefront of debate over the past few extraordinary years in which ebook sales have soared and many analogue bookshops fallen by the wayside. Those who swore never to read on screens now clutch their Kindles lovingly, and authors of all sorts are pondering self publishing, with perhaps some multimedia enhancements.  
We don't need publishers and we don’t need libraries like we used to. With a laptop and wifi anyone can write and broadcast their words to a potentially global audience, and trawl through oceans of freely available information and content. It’s shocking that so many of those whose work is about broadening access to culture still find it hard to acknowledge the amazing advances taking place in what we’re all supposed to care about most: free access to information and culture.Too much of the discussion  around libraries feels like a get together of Wurlitzer fans, nostalgic for a lost cause, not champions of the best means of access to knowledge in the 21st Century.  

We’re all Nearlywriters now, able to publish our words whenever we wish, and therefore fully responsible for deciding when what we’ve written is fully cooked and ready to be shared. And we’re Unlibrarians, with a massive collection of information online that we try to navigate our way through, aided by search engines, colleagues and friends, learning on our own terms, mapping our own development.

In that light, what shines out is the need for state provision of what used to be seen as the trappings around the core of public library services.

Now more than ever our communities vitally need a local breathing space, free to enter and ours by right, an actual place in which we can think freely, in public, amongst others, and find collaborators and coaches to help us further our intellectual and imaginative interests. If the State refuses to fund these spaces, then the motivated will create their own. But what then of all those with issues and frailties which define them as problems to the State but find in their library a space where they are treated as citizens first?

The library needs to take inspiration from the qualities of the social network. It should be a place to put your profile, to define your interests and goals, for yourself and to a wider community; a safe place to local and meet like minds and potential collaborators; a flexible space for thinking writing and reading, alone and in groups, quiet enough for those who come here to escape a noisy home; active enough for those who are fed up with staring in silence at their four walls. Here we can ‘click’ on fellow users as we would on their icons online, to read more about them and send a message if we want to connect with them.

Connected on line, members can easily pool resources and expertise, arranging meet ups wherever there’s room. Sites promoting this kind of collaborative consumption go back to the birth of libraries when academics shared lists of the books in their homes for students to visit and borrow.

Nobody used to come to libraries for the reassuring smell of books - they wanted knowledge and grew fond of the whiff of inspiration and empowerment which they imparted. 


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