Glasgow city councillor and former librarian AILEEN COLLERAN responds to ex-Labour Chief Librarian and Downing Street advisor John McTernan on the future of libraries

 

In many ways, I can’t help wondering if fellow Labour Hame contributor, John McTernan, has deliberately written a piece for The Daily Telegraph which appears to support wholesale public library closures as an elaborate joke. Was it a spoof piece proposing a policy that’s so outrageous that it calls attention to an issue and gets people debating the value of libraries?

As an “epater les bourgeois” rant it gets off to a flying start with the contention that the people protesting most about library closures in Brent are whingeing liberals who don’t use libraries themselves anymore, but would like to preserve them as a sop to their middle class consciences. A sweeping assertion with no evidence to back it up, and my experience of working in branch libraries is that the more affluent the area, the higher the borrowing figures.

Not that issue statistics alone should be the benchmark for evaluating a service, as the value of public libraries lies in a social and educational function that’s less easily measured by bean-counters. For many isolated and vulnerable people, the staff in the public library are their one source of human contact and interaction in a week. For many parents struggling to bring up their families the library is a lifeline for free access to books for their children and activities that are beyond their budget. I’m not arguing that many people now access their reading material and information in a different way in the 21st century. The demise of the Net Book Agreement allowed books to be discounted like baked beans and supermarkets have effectively driven most independent bookshops out of business. Technology in the shape of on-line ordering sounded the death knell for some big chain bookshops and the internet has opened up an incredible array of information sources, but to imply that this takes care of access to knowledge is fundamentally flawed. If anyone thinks a Google search is a substitute for proper research then I’d seriously question their intellectual credentials.

There’s a highly prophetic book called “Silicon Snake Oil” by Clifford Stoll, written in 1995, just as the internet was going mainstream, in which he argues powerfully that the Web should be regarded as a useful addition to face to face human interaction and learning rather than a substitute. You need to be fairly literate and educated to interpret the dross that often passes for information on the internet where opinions are presented as fact. Librarians are trained to find, evaluate and help interpret data. There’s no search engine in the world that can replace the human brain and the verbal information enquiry exchange between one person and another. Not to mention that there’s barely a fraction of the world’s printed materials, historic documents and photographs on-line. Public libraries are gateways to a much wider range of materials than what you might see on the shelf of your local branch, thanks to the British Library Loans service. Nothing can replace the glorious serendipity of browsing shelves and flicking through pages of a printed book, instead of being directed by Amazon recommendations based on your previous purchases.

I strongly believe there’s a new role for public libraries in the post-Borders age. For more years than I care to remember I’ve heard the tired old argument about how public libraries should be more like the bookshops that have recently been disappearing rapidly from our high streets and shopping centres. Usually this comes from people who haven’t set foot in a library in years as that’s exactly the route that was followed. No boring shelves full of dusty old tomes and archaic rules about silence, but lots of shiny new paperbacks, DVDs , cafés, computers, more user friendly, more accessible. Co-located with other services, in sports centres, and with on-line access and wi-fi – the public library service in this country has embraced modernisation. However, perhaps in the process there hasn’t been enough advocacy for the unique free educational service provided, enough articulation of the difference between libraries and bookshops – thus making them vulnerable to market forces as well.

John McTernan started his piece by asking if anyone uses public libraries any more. Well, I do, and went along this afternoon to collect a book I’d ordered on-line – Chris Mullin’s A Walk-On Part. In the preface he notes that “the political meeting is not dead, it has merely transferred to the literary festival.” In Glasgow, the Aye Write festival has been a resounding success and as the major bookshop chains close their branches, guess where author events and book clubs are taking place? This is a new dynamic for public libraries: to be the venue for discussion, debate and interaction between people. That and continuing to provide a communal space where no-one is excluded and everyone is welcome, regardless of income.

That’s a vision we should embrace, rather than endorsing a world vision of information haves ( browsing their iPads and Kindles in their gated estates and luxury flats) and information have nots where children grow up without ever having a book in their home and get their information and world view from mobile phone content provided by Sky or Virgin media.

Aileen Colleran is the sole Labour councillor in the four-member ward of Partick West in Glasgow, and a former librarian. Follow Aileen on Twitter at @ColleranAileen.