I don’t intend this to be solely a library blog, but having said that public libraries are viewed by councils as non-essentials it seemed a good time to hammer out some thoughts on why any society aiming at democracy and science should view them as essentials. I could add ‘any society aiming at sustainability’ too, since I’m keenly interested in that.
These are not original thoughts. Many people have given many good reasons for the existence of public libraries, time and time again – try this list from the Voices for the Library, or this extensive one from Public Library News to start with. However there is one that stands out for me, the one we should all be screaming from the rooftops.
Free access to information for all.
It is often said that libraries are outdated now that the internet exists. Did you know that even in 2014 16% of households lack an internet connection? Are they to be abandoned? I don’t believe the 6th richest economy in the world should be abandoning any of its citizens, though it seems I am in the minority there. In addition the main shortcomings of the open internet are well known: the huge amount of information with limited quality controls and access points. There has also been lots of research on how Google (you could extend this to all search engines) effectively controls the information (this is an older paper but seems to summarise nicely) people access by simply ranking it. More simply, if I had a penny for every time people have said to me “Oh don’t bother looking on the internet for it, I’ve tried and it’s not there” seconds before I found it there, I’d be rich. People need to learn or be trained in how to find information effectively. And where are the majority to learn that, outside of the education structure?
After all, there are four ways libraries support free access: firstly and obviously by its provision, in whatever form it takes, and secondly by training and supporting the training of people in how to access it. The latter starts with the toddler enjoying a picture book in the kids’ corner, travels through supporting kids’ reading (do you know how many books a child goes through in a year?) and information needs throughout their education, continues with supporting adult literacy programs, and simply by supporting the joy of reading at all ages. It also nowadays includes helping people gain familiarity with computers and the internet. It may include providing and helping with maps, directories and census reports to name a few of the historical sources available. Thirdly libraries have, or used to and should have, the trained staff available to put it into people’s hands at need when they can’t find it themselves. Finally, they are public spaces open to everyone regardless of age, colour, race, creed, etc etc.
What good does this do? I mentioned both democracy and science.
Both require the free flow and exchange of ideas and information. It should be obvious, but effective democracy requires an educated and informed populace. How can people make rational decisions without knowledge of a subject? How can they effectively evaluate the policies of our esteemed leaders and would-be leaders if they have no education? Not to mention how can they actually know said policies… both those that are stated, and those that are not. At a time when free media has fallen prey to the requirements of business we need more than ever reliable sources of solid information, facts and figures, to figure out what the blazes is going on.
And science… the role of public libraries in science may seem to be limited, but given that even a PhD in Molecular Biochemistry starts with that toddler with a picture book in the corner they clearly aren’t. They provide both information and basic training for all of us throughout our lives.
I believe science is also slowly coming under threat, directly from the increasing privatization of information and indirectly from increased copyright restrictions lobbied for by those private owners, also by increased digitization itself. Scholars need to be able to communicate ideas for new inspiration to strike. I have seen how difficult it can be to access essential papers for study when they are locked up in privately owned and copyrighted electronic journals whose subscriptions have to be renewed every year. Academic libraries are themselves increasingly difficult to access. They were once entirely publicly funded and open to anyone who wished to enter, if only for reference and upon signing permission forms and the like. Nowadays many are increasingly limiting access, to either their own students only or at best to the holders of ‘SCONUL Access’ cards and other reciprocal agreements within academia. Not surprising given both the cost of university education nowadays with its commercial agenda and also the increasingly tight licensing agreements for those electronic journals and books.
Public libraries have always supported those whom schools fail. Nowadays they also support those of us with a voice on the internet and nowhere else. As democracy fails we need that voice. That voice could even benefit local councils if it results in increased devolution in England. As privatization gains pace libraries should be acting as an equally loud voice on our behalf in favour of open access. It is a great shame that they are not (remind me to explore some reasons for that later). Without that voice out there we are slowly walking into a new oligarchic dark age.
“Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.”
— Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri videogame , ‘Commissioner Pravin Lal’
If you like, you could start a running tally below of the fate of your public libraries over the last few years. Give me a list of those closed or reduced and (hopefully) how missed they are to add to the above.