Today’s guest post comes from Sarah Bartlett, a librarian and founder-member of the Birmingham Salon.
Are professional librarians disengaged from the needs of communities? A public debate facilitated by CILIP West Midlands and The Birmingham Salon, a local debating group, entitled What are libraries for? demonstrated that librarians are able to put to one side any professional self-interest and debate the merits of the public library service in a dispassionate and informed way. What really made the event special was that it involved librarians and library users in equal measure debating what has become a hot topic in the media of late, against a backdrop of the government’s spending cuts and Birmingham’s plans for a new central library building.
The debate itself took place on the evening of Wednesday 22nd September at The Studio, in the city centre of Birmingham and was the culmination of months of planning and organisation by both organising bodies. As both a librarian (my day job is at Talis, a Birmingham-based library technology vendor) and a founder-member of The Birmingham Salon, I first had the idea in early summer, and CILIP West Midlands, who were keen to organise a meeting around the central library agreed that a collaboration would be a great idea. Brian Gambles, Assistant Head of Culture for Birmingham City Council with overall responsibility for libraries, readily agreed to speak at the event, appreciative of a rare opportunity to engage with such a broad audience. The debate also attracted two local corporate sponsors – Talis and TopTec, who, together with The Birmingham Salon’s ongoing sponsors, The University of Birmingham and The Studio, would ensure a first class setting for the debate.
A deluge of promotional materials created a buzz of excitement among librarians from all sectors as well as reaching visitors to libraries across the region. Beautifully designed flyers were placed on the noticeboards of innumerable local libraries as well as in copies of the CILIP Gazette. Online advertisements appeared on two popular Birmingham websites – Created in Brum and The Stirrer – paid for through corporate sponsorship. And throughout, we used Twitter and other social networking tools to direct traffic to the main event pages on both CILIP West Midlands and The Birmingham Salon websites.
Five minutes after the doors opened, it was clear that the event would be a runaway success as a good mix of librarians and library users flooded into the venue and a palpable mood of excitement grew.
What of the debate itself? At 7.30pm, Brian Gambles told a packed room how “genuinely pleased he was that so many people in the city had come along to talk about public libraries, and evoking Ranganathan’s Five rules of library science, emphasised that change is a continuum. After all, the almighty Barnes & Noble is looking for a new owner for its huge American operation and is closing its flagship bookstore in Manhattan. Meanwhile, a faculty library at the University of San Antonio in Texas is building a library which will be entirely bookless – yet will still be called a library, delivering value as a place to work, learn, study, receive help and instruction, and access content. The libraries of the future are no longer built around the book he suggested, whilst reassuring the audience that his passion for books and information remained steadfastly in place.
Brian pointed to Francis Bacon as providing a useful model for mapping the trajectory of the public library. Bacon’s trinity of the human mind – memory, imagination and reason – leads the public library to provide the most fantastic resources in myriad formats and the most amazing spaces for using those materials to stimulate discussion.
Crucially, Brian told the audience, the library is theirs, or ours, but not his. We should see this as a partnership between companies and organisations, schools and individuals.
Brian’s responder in the debate was Andy Killeen, a local author who recounted his lifelong love of libraries through a beautifully crafted narrative which took us from his childhood visits to Yardley library with its “reverent silence broken only by cold echoes of whispers”, “the infallible authority of the date stamp”, and “the smell, slightly musty and redolent of wisdom”. He led a spellbound audience to today’s “bright, friendly, sometimes even noisy” libraries, concluding with a heartfelt wish that in the midst of such (mainly positive) change, libraries do not lose touch with their prime function as “temples dedicated to the joy and magic of the written world.”
The ensuing debate was of an impressive quality throughout, and the Twitter stream (#libdebate) was equally lively. People spoke of their concerns that the new flagship library would drain vital funding from the city’s branch libraries. We debated the importance of technological innovations to the fundamentals of the public library mission. A Birmingham Salon regular spoke of his delight that Print on Demand could publish an out-of-print book for him alone. Another speaker bemoaned those people who wax lyrical about libraries whilst buying their books from Amazon, “leaving their memories in the rosy past”. A librarian related how, the previous week, she had been helping a library visitor to grow vegetables, and saw this as a route into book borrowing for that individual. We discussed whether such broadening of library activities was good or bad for the ongoing viability of the service. There was also a heated discussion about relevance. Does relevance impede the libr ary from “rising above the vagaries of the market and improving the culture of the masses”? Should libraries be quiet spaces for excellent books, or, as Brian Gambles argued, are the city’s young people more social in their approach to learning?
After an energising debate, people lingered before leaving, discussing the ideas and making new friends. As for the organisers, all those months of preparation had delivered an event that transcended professional discourse and that had city-wide value.
Despite all the problems that beset the public library service, the event demonstrated that large numbers of people from differing backgrounds care enough to travel to the centre of Birmingham “on a school night” to make their views about libraries known.
Podcasts from the debate are now available on the Birmingham Salon blog.
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