“Let’s make our libraries indispensable!”

Many thanks to Esther Montgomery for contributing the following post.

I’m feeling guilty.

Six times in the last ten years, I’ve half composed letters and emails to our local libraries but have never sent them. Now I’m wondering “If I had, would they not be closing?”

Librería El Ateneo, Buenos Aires (Image c/o radioher on Flickr)

I don’t mean it’s my responsibility alone (I’m not that much of a megalomaniac!) but, if we who have drifted away from libraries had explained sooner why we’ve gone, maybe they would have been turned into places so wonderful, no government or local authority would have dared to touch them.

Which is why this post may seem more like an attack than the plea for maintaining a healthy library system that it is.

Here are the points I would have made if ever I had finished those letters.

Opening times . . . Our nearest library is situated within the same building as a large GP practice. Over the road are an infant school and a junior school. Behind it is a secondary school. Beside it is a garage and a well-used Co-op. Between half-past eight and a quarter-past nine, the area is abuzz. The pavements are a river of parents and children as they go to and from the schools, buy their groceries, then home. The same thing happens at the end of the afternoon. Older children pass the library car-park on their way through the school gates and patients walk past its doors on their way into the doctor’s. Is the library open? No. Can people borrow books while they wait for appointments? No. Only when the whole area has gone quiet and almost everyone has gone home does the library open its doors. Daft.

And our main library in town – does it have tables in the main section? No. If you are trying to decide which of the large art or architecture books you want to borrow – you have to spread them out on the floor to look at the pictures and consult the indexes. Hardly practical!

Are there comfortable places to sit and read when it rains outside? No. Are there lots of books and lots of well stocked bookcases? No. There are wide expanses of floor instead.

Libraries have gone in for computers in a big way. There’s a great rank of them in our main library. Are they well used? Yes. You often have to book one in advance. Do they work well? No. They are very, very slow and you spend half your allotted time agreeing with little notices that you do, indeed, want to proceed. Why else are you there? Even in one of the few libraries I look forward to visiting – one with lots of books and a cafe area where you can sit and read, where there are lots of local history courses and poetry readings and . . . courses on computer skills and how to chose a lap-top, even there, the computers are mind-bendingly slow.

And loos – why do libraries not all have loos? You go in, you begin to browse, you need the loo, you leave. Nuts.

A couple of years ago, I heard the results of a survey which showed many elderly people are staying at home now because so many public loos have been closed. Not going out, not meeting people, not exercising NOT GOING TO THE LIBRARY (!) all these have a knock on effect on their physical and mental well-being – and the library loses its users.

Much has been said recently about the way small children account for a large number of those who still borrow books. Once they start school, they use the library less. By the time they are teenagers, they’ve all but vanished. Why? There are bound to be many reasons – but here’s one of them . . .

Education experts complain that children with homework are not always given space in their homes to sit and work quietly. The way new houses are designed has much to answer for. There’s a lack of dining space, children are expected to share bed-rooms, and kitchens are tiny. I’m not holding libraries responsible for bad architecture – but I am complaining that libraries have not done as much as they could (have they done anything?) to fill the space-to-think gap. Learning has shifted from books to computers. I don’t regret this. There is so much information on the internet it can be a wonderful resource.

But not every family has a computer – and children aren’t likely to find the desperately slow library ones much use.

But even if connection speeds were sorted, people studying need tables, and chairs, and a quiet that doesn’t hum with strip lighting and technology. This low-level but persistent noise presses in on our senses and squashes our brains. And books – the importance of books is not yet gone. You can’t browse on screens in the way you can randomly turn pages; poems don’t grab you in passing. Google Earth is fantastic – but open an atlas and your eye will see all sorts of places and geographical relationships which you’d not notice otherwise.

Libraries (librarians) seem to have lost confidence in what they are there to offer. They’ve lost confidence in BOOKS!

A campaign to save libraries should never have been necessary. If libraries were as good as they should be – they’d have been UNCLOSABLE!

So what now?

Whether they can be saved, I don’t know. Maybe it’s already too late. Some have been closed already. Saving libraries is now a matter of making the rest worth saving. Their eradication would be a terrible loss.

So – here’s part of the recipe. (I’m not claiming to have thought of everything.)

  • Pack libraries with books.
  • Open when people are around.
  • Have fast internet connections and computer-literate people at hand to help.
  • Bring in lots of tables and chairs.
  • Open loos in libraries.
  • Associate epub books and Kindle books with books in their traditional form so people can switch seamlessly between them.
  • Provide comfortable places to sit and read.
  • Install coffee and lunch shops. (Experience of libraries which have already done this shows how the atmosphere can be lifted.)
  • Employ cheerful, friendly librarians – who are not only able to show you where books are but tell you what’s in them. My current expectation when I walk into a library is that the people behind the counter (note where they are!) will conform to old-fashioned stereotypes of defensive doctors’-receptionists – and their politeness is so, so . . . detached. They don’t seem to be enthusiasts!
  • Abolish fines. Books will be handed back in the end. Some of us just like to hang on to them longer than others and stop borrowing when fines top the price of buying.

The government couldn’t close Waterloo Station. But it could easily dispense with platforms like Adlestrop – platforms where no-one gets on or off and the most exciting thing is the buzz of a fly.

Come on librarians! Make your libraries indispensable! That’s the way to go!


The views expressed in guest blog posts are those of individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect those of  Voices for the Library

4 thoughts on ““Let’s make our libraries indispensable!”

  1. P

    Opening when people are around? Definitely, I wish this formed part of consultations. Organisations can be a bit rubbish generally at this, or interworking generally. I was a volunteer on a study for a medical condition that had a leading centre for said medical condition in the same city as the university running the study. Had the researchers contacted the centre? Er, no.

    The loos thing is definitely an issue, especially for anyone with kids or with an illness or disability that means they always need to know where one is. It’s an accessibility issue many organisations don’t think about. And if a library does have loos, they should flag them up on their website.

    Fast computers, well, government at all levels and ICT seems to be a sticky issue. I have to admit it has influenced my opinion of a library for the better when it has had fast computers, decent WiFi for those who bring their own devices AND somewhere to plug in said devices (somewhere to charge phones can also bring in the teens). It comes to something when Wetherspoons is often genuinely better on that score.

    Fines…as a kid, the threat of fines was the only thing that made some people I knew bring back books, and it’s valuable income for some libraries. I do like it when services do book amnesties, and privately write off fines occasionally, but it’d be even better if they did fines amnesties as I know folk who are too embarrassed or skint to go back and pay up.

  2. Donna Scott

    Agree on all your points, except the fines.

    I recently ‘tsked’ at a friend who had built up £18 of fines on a book, just because she was too scared to take it back. She was unaware that 1)the fines would stop growing when she returned or renewed the book 2)she didn’t have to pay straight away 3)she could renew online, so hadn’t got to make a special journey 4)if she wasnted to just get rid of the book, she didn’t have to drop it at the same library, but could drop it at the nearest to hand.

    The discretionary point is a good one though. My sister-in-law was told to buy new copies of all the books she’d forgotten to renew (and built up a really huge fine) so she could replace the ones she’d borrowed as ‘lost’. Even though she had them. So she got to keep the library copies… seems crazy, but at least she could get them cheaper online and not pay the catalogue RRP.

  3. LibraryCat

    I’m curious – I spent several years in the UK, and frequented libraries (I’m a librarian, after all…) which all had loos, as I recall. Apparently, there isn’t a law requiring that they do so? I believe the only circumstances under which a library in the United States can be without a public loo is if it is in a building shared with another entity such as a City Hall, and there are public restrooms available in the shared area.

    We do surveys and observe what is going on in our community and when, to determine the hours we are open, and friendly “customer service” is what we strive for. If we had the space, I would love to at least have a coffee bar. Most libraries have internet access; the proportion which also has very fast access and also WIFI is increasing all the time.

    The only suggestion you made that would be nearly impossible is the one about associating ebooks (of any kind, including Kindle) and print books. To manage the cost of ebooks (and they are often as costly as, and sometimes more costly than, print books) we belong to a consortium which makes the ebook purchases. The ebooks belong to all members of the consortium, and while we may buy multiple copies of a very popular title, we only buy one copy of most books. An ebook must be “checked out” in the same way as physical books, and only one person can have a copy checked out at a time. It would, in theory, be possible for a patron to have both the physical and ebook versions checked out at the same time, allowing the person to switch back and forth, but the chances are slim, given that the number of ebooks is still much lower than the number of print books – and many, many titles are not yet available in ebook format.

    Space is the one thing we are very short on, but we do manage to provide some comfortable seating.

    Sorry – we can’t abolish fines. We have many folks who would not return items at all if there were no penalties (and there are still a very few who don’t return things – they usually get issued a warrant for theft of library materials). Our patrons as a whole have paid for those materials with their taxes and we owe them a method to encourage people to return materials on time.

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