‘The learning engines of our society’: guest blog from Rónán O’Beirne

Today’s guest blog comes from Rónán O’Beirne, Director of Libraries, Learning and Research at Bradford College. His book From Lending to Learning- the development and extension of public libraries (November 2010) makes the case for public libraries to extend their remit beyond  lending books to embrace informal learning, information literacy and digital citizenship.

My local library, Keighley in West Yorkshire, was, in 1904, the first Carnegie library to be built in England; imagine the excitement! A local champion of adult education, Swire Smith, received the offer from Carnegie and immediately put pen to paper to urge his Mayor to accept the offer. This is what he wrote, on 8th August 1899:

Dear Mayor,
I cannot express to you the delight which I feel in handing you the enclosed letter from my friend Mr Andrew Carnegie, which he has authorised me to submit to you.
No nobler gift has ever been offered to Keighley; for a Free Library is the one great thing needed, and so long desired, to complete the educational equipment of our growing town. And when we consider that this magnificent offer has come unsolicited, and that we have no claims on Mr Carnegie’s generosity, I am sure that you and the Town Council, as representing the people of Keighley, will accept it with unbounded enthusiasm, and with gratitude only equalled by the kindness of heart that has prompted Mr Carnegie to confer such a blessing upon our town.
Believe me, Dear Mr Mayor,
yours sincerely
Swire Smith1

When a country’s public libraries are threatened with closure in order to pay for the excesses of the moneylenders a fundamental shift in the values of that society are exposed for all to see. The motives of greed and profit have eclipsed the principles of education, access to information and social justice upon which the public library was founded.

The urgent debate about public libraries should not just concern itself with the cost-effectiveness of lending books or of keeping dilapidated buildings open. No, it is of far greater importance. It cuts to the core choice for the people of this democracy; whether they want a society based on individuals as consumers or whether the social glue of community and culture, supported by a network of libraries, offers a brighter future.

Much of this debate so far has centred on book lending. I believe that public libraries have a more fundamental role to play, and that is to support informal learning. The twenty years I spent working in public libraries, in different departments and at all levels, provided me with valuable insight. As a library assistant I shared young people’s thirst for knowledge, and witnessed new families joining their local library, full of excitement. I saw children sitting still, enthralled by a storyteller. I saw at first hand the light in the eyes of the old or lonely whose trip to the library was a social lifeline; the unemployed embarking on learning new skills and finding direction; redundant workers rebuilding their lives; the retired making new beginnings, embarking on a new hobby, and of course all of those learners, so many, chasing their goals, immersing themselves in the vast body of knowledge represented by the public library.

At a senior leadership level I witnessed the pettiness of local politics, of bureaucrats unable to take decisions, the utter lack of direction given locally by elected members and the frustrating paucity of ideas in national policy.

On reflection, I have come to the conclusion that public libraries fulfil the role of learning support agencies by providing space, materials and dedicated staff for the individual to explore and to learn. In particular, libraries’ support and advocacy for informal learning, which can be deeply personal, goes far beyond what is acknowledged by funding regimes.

One of my favourite quotations, and one I have used many times in presentations to library staff, illustrates the essence of informal learning that takes place in libraries up and down the country on a daily basis:

“I can sit there and it’s like a wonderful bag of goodies. I’m trying to read all the old Derbyshire newspapers from 1785, and it’s superb – I know things the experts don’t! When you’re studying for qualifications you go in straight lines – now I wander.”
(Chesterfield library user) 2
This ‘learning’ dimension of the public library is too often understated by campaigners, and yet when the case against closures of libraries on the Wirral was made successfully, just over a year ago, the main thrust of the argument did not rest on book lending statistics but rather on the support those eleven threatened libraries provided for learners; schoolchildren, workers and the unemployed.

Part of the tragedy for the public library lies in the almost obsessive ‘managerialism’ which has in recent decades sought to reduce the complexities of a highly-valued community service to the miserly economics of a market stall. Despite the sheen of marketing, or the apparently highly innovative introduction of coffee shops, the point about libraries is that they are the focus within their communities. For those who have ‘measured out their libraries in coffee spoons’, all of their so called ‘knowledge has just brought us closer to ignorance’.

Recently I wrote that libraries should not be in decline but should in fact be the learning engines of our society; fuelled by the information explosion, tended by the information professional and stoked by an aggressive agenda of social inclusion and citizenship to bridge the digital divide.

To this agenda I would also add information literacy. Speaking in 2009, President Barak Obama said:

“In addition to the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic, it is equally important that our students are given the tools required to take advantage of the information available to them. The ability to seek, find, and decipher information can be applied to countless life decisions, whether financial, medical, educational, or technical.”3
The abilities to which President Obama refers form the basis of information literacy. There is a job here for public libraries, to embrace the challenge of empowering all citizens to become information literate and to provide them with the tools and skills through which we can ensure a more equitable society.

The battles fought in every neighbourhood to save libraries are clearly not simply about saving books or subsidising the reading habits of the middle classes. They represent the heart-felt cries of ordinary people fighting for their right to information, learning and culture. Nor can the closure of public libraries just be seen as a threat to reading, for it represents ultimately a threat to one of the few remaining assets of a neighbourhood, part of the ripping asunder of the fragile fabric of so many communities. Ultimately, and more ominously, it symbolises an attack on the freedom of individuals.

1.      Letter from Swire Smith from the Keighley Library archive available from the K100 website http://www.bradlibs.com/k100/about/index.htm accessed 14 Jan 2011

2.      Proctor, R. and Bartle, C. (2002) ‘Low achievers: lifelong learners: an investigation into the impact of the public library on educational disadvantage’, Library and Information Commission Research Report 117, CEPLIS, Sheffield.

3.      Obama, B. (2009) ‘National Information Literacy Awareness Month – a proclamation’, The    White House; available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/presidential-proclamation-national-information-literacy-awareness-month accessed 14 Jan 2011

Guest bloggers are not affiliated with VftL, and all views and opinions are their own.

2 thoughts on “‘The learning engines of our society’: guest blog from Rónán O’Beirne

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention ‘The learning engines of our society’: guest blog from Rónán O’Beirne | Voices for the Library -- Topsy.com

  2. Damien O'Keeffe

    An eloquently stated and powerful argument for the defence of public libraries. It is absolutely the case that libraries fulfil a much wider social function within their communities than just the lending of books. That a Government in the so-called civilised world, in the 21st Century, should even be contemplating such a thing as the closing of libraries is an indictment of materialism over morality, and brings us ever closer to an Orwellian vision of state barbarism.

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