Tuesday, October 21, 2008

what is a library?

A Guardian editorial discusses rebranding the notion of town libraries:

The town library, byword for mousy respectability and decent endeavour, is at last showing a capacity to fight to escape from a deathly decline. At a conference in Liverpool last week Roy Clare, boss of the formerly invisible Museums, Libraries and Archives Council argued for libraries' role in lifelong learning from school to senescence, now rebranded as "Finding Your Talent". Earlier this month the culture secretary, Andy Burnham, announced a review to consider how best to modernise libraries, hinting not merely at rebranding but also at a radical rethink of their contemporary purpose. [...] There is not much time left.

I wouldn't be who I am without the town libraries of the past--without free access to books. I grew up in an age of no online book shops, no paperbacks in the supermarket, no disposable income. There were no books in our house except library books. Everything I read, everything that formed me as a writer, came from the Leeds City Library system. It was my lifeline. I needed it. But today, surrounded by cheap notebook computers and phones that browse the web, of Wikipedia and Google and, do residents of industrialised nations need old-style libraries?

Today, with second-hand books available with one-click and for one dollar, I tend to use the library only for esoteric inter-library loan stuff: ordering the kind of book that costs $140 and is 90 pages long. I'd be lost without that service. For me, then, old-fashioned libraries have a meaningful, if limited, role.

What do they provide for you?

It seems to me that libraries are gateways to knowledge, where, in an ideal world, users are steered by information experts, that is, librarians to the perfect fictional and non-fictional fit. These gateways used to be brick or stone buildings with lions outside and books and silence inside. But that was then. What about now? What should a town-funded 21st century knowledge portal look like?

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