WHITHER OUR LIBRARIES?

I am writing about libraries not to belatedly commemorate my mother’s early years as a librarian in Amsterdam, but because I have had a long and wonderful association with libraries all my life. They are like old friends. When I was at university, I found libraries to be romantic places where students like myself would congregate and share interests rather than talk about football or critique the college food. The many floors of accessible stacks of the Widener Library at Harvard opened worlds of knowledge for me and also sparked my imagination The impact was to last a lifetime. I found the library to be a true academy of learning. I was fortunate in the years that followed to have access to New York’s great 42nd Street Library and then the gigantic Library of Congress in Washington DC.

One of the reasons I chose to live in Cambridge, England in the 1970’s was because of its excellent library. If I had to do research for my books and articles a library that was relatively close-by was essential. Nearly five decades later, alas, I almost never go there. The digital onslaught now permits me to speedily fill in any gaps in my now library size collection of books.

It is challenging to consider that less than forty years ago, libraries were still at the center of civilization, being the storehouse of our history and all recorded knowledge. Since then the wonders of the Internet have deprived these libraries not only of their monopoly on stored information but also of their social standing in our communities. Although in most of the English speaking world the libraries are gradually turning into tombs for books, in some countries like South Korea hundreds of new libraries have been built in the past decade. Their perspective obviously differs from our own.

How are we going to replace the human contact libraries provided? Books transformed the lives of many youngsters over the past few centuries, but it now appears adults cannot even find the time to bring the very young ones into a library. The consequence is a damaging decline in their literacy.

Libraries date back some six millennia to stored clay tablets in cuneiform found buried in what used to be Mesopotamia. During the Greco-Roman era, the great library in Alexandria, Egypt became one of the centers of ancient civilization. The opposition of religion to this library came with the fall of Alexandria in 641 when Caliph Omar declared: “Burn the libraries, for all their value is in the Koran.” Almost a thousand years later, Martin Luther wrote “The aggregation of large libraries tends to divert men’s thoughts from the one great book, The Bible, which ought, day and night, to be in everyone’s hand. My project, my hope, in translating the scriptures, was to check the so prevalent production of new works.” It is ironic how both great religions that now see religious attendance flagging are looking at how the libraries are coping with a similar challenge. Public libraries view with envy how currently museum attendance continues to soar.

Some of the great libraries of the world are turning into tourist attractions with almost no room to sit down anywhere. These temples of knowledge are using their architectural beauty to lure in crowds. Among these classic libraries is the St Gallen Abbey which is a world heritage wonder in a Swiss canton named in its honor. The library there has been in operation since the 8th century and some of its rarest books from before 1000 AD are displayed in its resplendent, wood lined main room. More accessible for tourists is The Bibliotheque Mazarine in Paris. It is France’s oldest public library dating from 1643 and is visited for its marble bust-lined reading room from the period of Moliere. London’s world famous British Library has turned into a major museum showing art while its vast book collection is now housed in an entirely new library half a mile to the north. There is ample room for nostalgia in these libraries turned into tourist attractions.

Public Libraries in England have evolved considerably over the past two centuries. The writer E.S. Turner observed, “The higher bourgeoisie were never seen in public libraries, which had, in their eyes, a dispensary or workhouse image; though they were occasionally seen in the reference department where they made known their requirements in firm, resonant tones.”1 Those days of class-division in libraries are now past, but their survival as cultural institutions is under threat. Over the last five years about a quarter of the nation’s librarians, some 8000 of them, have lost their jobs.

Alan Bennett believes that the closure of library branches in the UK verges on “child abuse” and fellow author Neil Gaiman said that “silencing the voices of the past” is damaging our future. Over last year alone over 200,000 children who left primary school in the UK were unable to read to the expected level. Part of this failure is due to the lack of time they are exposed to the printed word. Books to them belong to the past. Another author, Cathy Cassidy, who successfully fought to save some of Liverpool’s libraries, said that the falling attendance figures reflected “cuts in staffing, opening hours and show the damage that closing local libraries has caused. Does Britain really want to add the loss of libraries to an already shocking decimation of services?”2 While Library campaigner, Desmond Clarke, added that “The real concern must be the marked decline over several years in library usage and borrowing.”

The greatest fall in library usage among adults in recent years has been in the 16-24 year old age group. Figures showed that in 2005 half of this age group used their library while ten years later that figure had fallen to a mere 25%. The most common reason for using a library less is that they had “less free time.” Just over ten per cent of adults said they were now reading eBooks instead of borrowing them from a library.

Nick Poole, an information specialist in the UK, maintains that “As a nation we have a choice. We can either accept our place at the bottom of the OECD rankings for literacy… or we invest in the skills our children will need in a digital world. We can’t afford to speak the language of life chances while failing to invest in and develop the library and information services that make them a reality.”

Many critics insist that with the closure of pubs, the decline in church attendance, and the diminishing use of public libraries, a new role should be given to the latter: they should be turned into a hub of every community. They should encourage plays, exhibitions and a variety of classes. One commentator in the Guardian wrote: “My local library in Market Drayton, it is always buzzing with children’s reading and singing groups, talks with writers, drop-in sessions for people researching their family histories, and even people borrowing books! But, guess what? this facility, so much of peoples lives, is under threat because Shropshire county council funding cuts.”3 The value of libraries, books, learning and forward-thinking are all being challenged by the continuing cuts in public services.

In the United States trends in visiting public libraries have steadied even with the budget cuts at both the state and municipal levels which are forcing reduced hours and smaller staffs. A Pew Research Center survey in April 2016 found that Americans continued to express mostly positive opinions about the state and services of their local public libraries. For example three quarters said that their libraries provided them with the necessary resources. There was also a growing sense that these libraries helped them to decide what information they could trust. 37% felt that these public institutions helped them “a lot” in this respect. Personally, I wonder whether the Trump supporters, who apparently don’t give a damn about the facts, were in this category.

A large number of Americans hold high expectations for the services their local libraries should offer.4 For example, they can teach people digital skills, or help them how to explore and use creative technologies such as 3D printers. More than a quarter of all adults are using a library for Internet access. Many libraries now offer new recreational and cultural opportunities such as e-readers, laptops, scientific equipment and the loan of musical instruments. The librarians justify this because they believe they should respond to the needs of their local community, They do not regard this as a ploy to stay relevant. Indeed, free access to the Internet and computers is now almost as important to library visitors as borrowing books.5 However, when it comes to stacks of books, about a quarter queried thought these should be moved to make more room for technical equipment and community activities and about a third rejected such moves. The New York Public Library is adopting “the bookstore model” offering more comfortable seats and table space and providing easy access to a broad range of both the classics and bestsellers.

School libraries face protracted challenges: As schools continue to seek ways to reduce costs, such as cutting the number of librarians and consolidating different services, their survival is uncertain. The new generation of millennials who enter college are already using the Internet more than their library. Surfing the web is far easier than plowing through a library’s catalogue. In terms of time, energy and immediate results, the college library is likely to become less frequented.6

With billions of materials circulated every year in the United States, many of these are stored in over 17,000 American libraries, neither the uncertainties facing them nor their transformations will affect their historical importance. Budget cuts to public libraries in the 21st century seem inevitable as do the growth of alternative sources of information and the rise of new digital technologies. There is increasing awareness among Americans and Europeans that the future of public libraries must focus on improving the quality of life itself for the readers in their communities.

Ultimately, what of the unpredictable future? What we will leave behind as a civilization are our libraries regardless of all the plausible measures or standards of value. Perhaps such saved “treasures” will have to be studied to be understood, much as the cuneiform of ancient Assyria was deciphered by modern experts. Somehow I doubt that the vast arrays of trillions of air conditioned bits of stored digital information will be of use to any species or robots a few thousand years from now. If the content of any surviving paper holdings are still legible after untold fires, earthquakes, storms, or wars they might offer valuable revelations to the curious digital decipherers of tomorrow.


1E S Turner, An ABC of Nostalgia, (1984) p.141
2Alison Flood, The Guardian, December 10, 2014
3Graham Russell, in a letter to the Guardian December 26, 2016
4John B. Horrigan, in a report on Libraries to the Pew Research Center September 9, 2016
5Leslie Kaufman, Survey on Libraries, The New York Times, January 22, 2013
6Pascal Lupien and Randy Oldham, “Meeting the Needs of Student Webb Users in Academic Libraries” (2012)

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