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Open Features: The Living Library

Last summer, writer and researcher Nilam Ashra-McGrath (www.nilamashramcgrath.co.uk) completed a writing-residency at Huddersfield Library, UK, and is now writing a non-fiction book about her experiences. The book will be out in 2012, and you can read the prologue here:

Prologue to The Living Library
By Nilam Ashra-McGrath

If you were asked to name an institution that expects nothing from you, but gives you the most in return, you would have to name your local public library. No other public service institution is subject to such praise and abuse in equal measure, and no other institution is currently in such jeopardy. So what is it that they give us? How are they viewed? Recent debates about the value of libraries describe them firstly, as repositories of books and knowledge, secondly as a unique and crucial service, and thirdly and most recently, as outdated or dying institutions.

As repositories of knowledge, they are viewed essentially as containers; houses for books. The problem with viewing libraries as repositories means that we reduce them to a thing – a function – and things can be bought and sold. They become a commodity, and the commoditisation doesn’t end there. We place a financial value on education, meaning that knowledge is also a commodity. In campaigning terms, the people wanting to close and sell off bits of local libraries don’t view them as anything more than commodities for sale. As such, they don’t understand the richness of what is housed within them, nor do they understand that there is a huge social element to being a member of a library. So, if you sell off the local library, you’re effectively cutting people off from their own social network and diluting the rich cultural value of libraries. The people rallying against library closures fully understand the richness that is housed within libraries and the vital social network that grows organically from them, but some campaigners are better at explaining this than others.

The uniqueness of the library comes from the intricately woven social fibres that knit together to form the institution that we know as the public library. First and foremost, libraries are unique services in that they encourage reading and literacy in a way that our formal schooling system doesn’t. Numerous studies explain much more eloquently than I ever could just how this happens, so let’s focus instead on the subtleties of what else makes a library so unique.

Their public service ethos

Libraries are loyal to the public service ethos. This means that rather than viewing patrons as “customers,” they view them as members of a community. (see http://blog.schoollibraryjournal.com/neverendingsearch/2008/08/25/library-as-domestic-metaphor/) This doesn’t mean that libraries are devoid of customer service rhetoric – far from it – but its function is rooted in nothing more complicated than serving everyone regardless of who they are and where they come from.

A class and economic leveller

If libraries are concerned with serving everyone, then this places them (uniquely) as one of the few public service institutions that do not discriminate, constitutionally at least, making them a great leveller of class. This is in spite of history telling us that public libraries in this country are built on class divide. Coupled with their public service ethos, they continue to serve patrons without bias or judgement. We can all have use of them, irrespective of our heritage, background, privileges, schooling, parenting and abilities. This is the opposite of what we experience on our high streets, where shop window displays entice us in until we realise that we cannot buy what they are offering. On a basic level, shops discriminate against those who cannot afford to buy their goods and services. Libraries don’t put up the same barriers as these commercial enterprises. They don’t push us away. They pull us in.

Learning linked to freedom and emancipation

History also tells us that libraries are linked to opportunity; they open a door to “a new world – a larger environment” (Rose, 2010:74). Jonathan Rose, in his excellent book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, gives countless examples from the Chartist Movement through to the Welsh Mining libraries where libraries aided a “social revolution...[because] they allowed people to control their own minds” (2010:51) rather than be subjected to indoctrination about their subordinate role in life. Libraries therefore offered a reprieve from working life and are credited with the crucial role of helping to “better oneself.” Reading, in particular, amounted to emancipation on many levels: economic, social, and spiritual.

They expect little from us

At the moment, we have a certain expectation of our local library. We expect it to have books and we expect to be able to take these books out. We also expect the librarians to be qualified to guide us in the right direction. They, in return, expect very little from us: pay your fines, don’t lick your fingers and handle all the books. Even the “no talking” rule isn’t rigorously applied anymore thanks to mobile phones infiltrating this sanctuary.

There have been suggestions for library services to be formally included with many other social services, but this would dilute what they have to offer. If the library becomes a place where you can pay bills and organise other issues you have with the council, it begins to feel like any other council office. The notion that they can be dismantled and pop up as an appendage to other council services seems absurd. Libraries are not council offices, and they are not job centres, yet the current powers-that-be have this type of hybrid in mind when they chant their “super-libraries” song. Changing them be become appendages would mean that our expectations would change, possibly become diminished, lost even. It’s not clear yet whether there is a hidden agenda of wanting us to lower our expectations, but I’m willing to bet that Marxists and other social reformers everywhere are rumbling with rage, with “hands off our libraries” being an apt campaigning phrase for many reasons.

They are easy to navigate

For those of you who think that the library is too stressful, I have just one image for you: Argos. There is no other institution that is so wonderfully easy to navigate and so easy to become part of as the public library. It is one of the most simple of pleasures. You go in, you look at the shelves and pick one or two books you’d like to read, and you take them home with you. The most crucial part of this process is what is omitted: money. You do not have to open your purse to see if you have enough cash to take the books home. The simplicity of the loan scheme is greatly undervalued by a growing generation who take pleasure from the immediacy of the internet, all because they can’t be bothered to spend half an hour looking through the eclectic range of books spread before them at their local library. This is a generation missing out on a system that is not necessary easier than finding dubious facts on the internet, but different and often more insightful on many levels.

It’s free!

What other institution regularly gives you free (yes, free!) access to books, workshops, social networks, IT courses, local information, children’s activities – the list is endless? The library doesn’t care about the hot new author, or the established literary heavyweight. It doesn’t care about book reviews and awards. It will order any books you like (it had copies of Serious Men and Illustrado long before my local Waterstones had them), and have them waiting for you, for free or for a fraction of the cost that bookstores charge. The beauty and simplicity of this scheme means that you pay nothing or next to nothing to read what you want, and leave it in a safe place for others to enjoy.

They are safe havens

Ultimately, libraries offer a safe environment to learn. That safe environment is often an extension of individuals needing a respite from the traumas of everyday life. The library offers this safety, in some form, no matter how small.

All of these subtleties combine to make the library a unique type of organisation, and it’s this uniqueness that makes the service so crucial. However, this crucial service is under attack. The library is often portrayed as an outmoded and dying institution. If libraries are viewed like this by policymakers, then why are we surprised that libraries, although deeply embedded in our heritage, are for sale? Our cultural landscape is full of artefacts for sale and everything has its price. But, when it comes to libraries, campaigners and policy makers seem to be speaking a different language. “Value” to these opposing sides means something so very, very different. On one side there is the argument about the richness that libraries bring us, the qualitative (unquantifiable) value they give individuals and communities, and on the other side there is the quantitative argument, that they are worth something, and therefore have to be sold, as we can’t afford to keep them anymore because of our humungous national debt.

How else can we view libraries?

After almost 3 weeks with the different sections of the library and it’s services, I thought long and hard about the language being used by policy makers and campaigners to describe this institution, and it seemed to me that something was missing. The notion that it is a house, or a repository of knowledge effectively reduces its function down to that of a bank that contains information. This isn’t enough of a selling point. It doesn’t tell me enough about the human, emotional or social side.

What happens when we begin to look at the library not as an inanimate object (a repository for knowledge), nor as a commodity to be sold (large assets like buildings that house smaller assets such as books, computers, special equipment), but as a living organism, human perhaps? Would this mean that they have no financial value? Well, no. Even humans can be bought and sold, but viewing a library as more than a repository and a commodity, as a place with which we have an emotional connection, may help the policy wonks understand what us “whingers” are on about. It’s worth a try, isn’t it?
When something is human, or personified in such a way, it brings that “thing” to life and the library is an institution that needs to be spoken of in terms of its life-giving qualities and not spoken of as if it were old or dying. There is a lot about the library that can be viewed as human. The metaphor is a strong one; they are often described as the “beating heart” of any community. I had the privilege of seeing its beating heart when I spent almost three weeks with the different functions that make up my local library service. This is a book about what I saw. This is a book about the living library.

You can read more extractx from her book on her blog: http://nilamsnet.wordpress.com/category/writer-in-residence-2/

For more information about the book, contact her directly nilam@nilamashramcgrath.co.uk


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