Policy Provocations 2012 poses the question – do we still need libraries?

When I think about what libraries have meant to me, I find myself (as many do) in emotive territory. My earliest encounter with library membership involved visits to Widnes’s Kingsway Library on Saturday mornings as a child of about 5 or 6. My mum was a nurse working night shifts, so to give her some peace to sleep, my dad would take my older sister and me off to the local market for the weekly shop and then we would stop off at the library to choose our books. My sister, in her early teens, would often get albums of her favourite bands (an embarrassing amount of All About Eve I am sorry to tell) which she would then ‘tape’ on a double cassette deck (retro) noting with care the tracks on the new sleeve and making compilations. I joined the book club, gamely reviewing the classic The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark with an accompanying (and definitely excellent) owl picture. I remember the feeling of pride when this was displayed with others above the counter. From here I returned weekly, devouring the entire series of ‘Saddler’s Wells’ books (during my ‘I am definitely going to be a famous ballerina’ phase and despite never having had a single dancing lesson), progressing through the relevant age categories, arriving finally at the ‘proper’ literature section where I remember reviewing The Catcher in the Rye (which I made no attempt to represent pictorially).

Therefore, my inherent response to the above question is, unsurprisingly, a large and resounding ‘yes’. Of course we need libraries and all that they provide for a community. This evening’s venue, the magnificently restored Florence Institute (known affectionately as ‘The Florrie’) on Mill Street in Toxteth, illustrates precisely why. Built originally to address local poverty, The Florrie stood for ambition, inclusion and quality of life. John Flamson (Director of Partnerships and Innovation at the University of Liverpool and tonight’s Chair) states that it had been said previously that the only way to make good coming from Liverpool’s Dingle area was to get involved in music, football, crime or education. The Florrie stood as a beacon for the latter, offering advancement of learning and quality of life. John highlights Liverpool’s overall history with libraries, pointing out that with the opening of the Lyceum, the city boasted one the first lending libraries in Europe and that the renovation of Liverpool Central Library will result in one of the first ‘super’ libraries. He then introduces the panel and gives each member five minutes to present their response to the question for debate.

First to speak is Professor Jonathon Rose (Professor of History, Drew University, USA and author of The Intellectual Life of the British working Classes). Professor Rose feels that the most pressing concern is the rapid deterioration of the reading habit, particularly amongst the young. He reveals that the average American teenager spends just 23 minutes a day on books and reading, the rest of their time being dedicated primarily to screens, be it the PC, laptop or TV. His express fear is that a whole literary generation could die out, as the internet begins to undermine our ability to read sustained narratives. He also expressed that libraries serve a crucial function in not being controlled by government or corporate drives. They can acquire any book they see fit, increasing accessibility and letting the reader judge for themselves.

Next up is Alan Davey of the Arts Council for England. He recognises that libraries are integral, vital and irreplaceable, but also acknowledges that they need to be vigilant to ensure relevance and to remain enticing and welcoming. When asked why they matter, Alan states that they are crucial for promotion of the written word and literacy, enhancing a community’s capacity to read for pleasure (which Sue Charteris, Chair of The Reader Organisation goes on to explain is used by UNESCO as a key indicator of social mobility) and providing essential navigational assistance in a world increasingly bombarded with disparate digital information. Libraries can also help connect the socially dislocated, isolated and vulnerable as Sue Charteris now illustrates.

Sue starts out by stating that the original aim of many libraries was to encourage the working classes to give up drink! Nowadays the key focus must be reading. This was the driving motivation behind reformers such as Carnegie and Tate. The impact and benefits of reading for wellbeing and indeed, shared reading experience has been clearly evidenced in the work of The Reader but she suggests that while our libraries are essential, perhaps their model needs to change. This is taken up by the final speaker, Councillor Keith Mitchell who brings the debate around to the contentious issue of government cuts. There is palpable resistance in the room to his suggestions for a more retail based, volunteer staffed, approach to the library model, with a shift in focus that would mean coincidental borrowing of books alongside other more commercial pursuits. He also raises the issue of the number of libraries and their locations, suggesting that people’s attachment to buildings acts as an obstacle to progress. Sitting in the beautiful Florrie I tend towards an understanding of this kind of attachment and am reluctant to diminish its importance.

Opening the floor to questions, Chair John Flamson notes the Liverpool flavour to our responses – which comprise a mix of comment, observation and question that seems to characterise our inquisitive city. Fears were raised that Councillor Mitchell’s suggestions seem to constitute a mere extension of a Town Hall, but the panel feel that a multi-functional environment suits libraries and if done correctly can work extremely well. Professor Rose points out that even the Carnegie blueprints include a public meeting space. We hear stories from many audience members, of self improvement – a self-taught lawyer and screen writer are among our number. The cost-effective nature of libraries is highlighted. Book groups rely on them for multiple copies and one lady points to the significance of access to expensive sheet music resources for amateur musicians. The panel agree wholeheartedly, but note that libraries need to publicise these treasures more widely and be more proactive in doing so. This prompts a debate as to whether such a breed as the ‘dinosaur librarian’ exists and if this indicates a reluctance to change that is detrimental to their image and appeal.

Finally a gentleman from the back of the room speaks up. He tells the story of his relationship with libraries, in a quiet, understated but heartfelt way and the impact of his point resonates through the room. His point is simple, but crucial. Libraries are always just there. The door is always open and you are always welcome and safe and equal. Long may it remain so.

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