When I was asked to write a piece in support of National Libraries Day I was instantly reminded of a Top Gear episode where the hosts came to the U.S. The episode was a running set of jokes about pickup trucks and guns.
In typical Top Gear fashion Clarkson, Hammond, and May played the stereotypes of Americans to hilarious effect; at one point drag racing their cars toward alligator infested waters. It would be the equivalent of me talking about the UK library situation with the fidelity of Jelly Babies, the London Eye, and tales of Camelot.
I’ve traveled in the UK, but it would be utterly presumptuous of me to present plans and critiques of a system I simply have not studied or used. I do, however, feel qualified to talk about how the current UK public library debate is seen in the U.S. and offer some lessons we learned in seemingly similar situations.
Take the current debate around the Sieghart Report, and the disastrous loss of funding for public libraries. Following along on the web and social media the stories highlight a lack of national funding, and localities trying to cut library budgets by replacing librarians with volunteers.
In these articles I read about local councils not understanding the role of librarians or the importance of libraries, and sometimes not even understanding the law.
The Great Recession
The U.S. is not so dissimilar in this respect. While the role of national versus local funding may be different, and even the statutory requirements for public libraries, many of the debates seem painfully familiar.
During the “great recession” that started in 2007 many cities and towns saw libraries as unaffordable extras, or looked at libraries, saw the shelves stocked, and assumed no more investment was needed.
Public library budgets were slashed, making them compete with services like local police, fire, and even waste management. Some governments saw libraries as buildings and collections, missing the vital role of librarians to make libraries work.
Worse, some saw libraries as quaint holdovers of a time before the Internet – ignoring the fact that a huge percentage of the American people (particularly in rural and poor urban areas) relied on public libraries to provide internet access in the first place (or the vital role librarians played in the development and growth of the Internet itself).
As in the UK there were protests, there were reports written, and impassioned speeches given. As in the UK there were also layoffs and closures. Today we see the results of these cuts in the library programs of primary and secondary schools. School libraries have been ravaged by a lack of understanding of school librarians as teachers, and an ignorance of the documented positive effect school librarians have on student performance.
As in the UK, the politics of austerity and smaller government played, and still play, a role. Tea Party activists called for lower taxes, a distrust of any government institution, and a belief that the private sector could handle any issues of access.
Control the narrative
However, today while hardly a golden age of library spending and expansion, things are improving. Library budgets are increasing. Library employment is recovering (though it still relies too much on part time professionals).
There are “lighthouse” library programs – libraries that have shown the effectiveness of public investment. From Hartford Connecticut to Chattanooga Tennessee to the rural libraries of Vermont and their broadband initiatives, public libraries are seeing a resurgence in the minds of the public.
Libraries are "cool" again. Articles questioning the need for libraries or marveling at tattooed librarianshave been replaced with stories about public libraries using gigabit fiber internet access to stimulate local entrepreneurship and education.
What was the change? While a slow economic recovery has played its part, that is far from the whole story. What happened was that librarians and the libraries they ran began to control the narrative and they returned to their roots to demonstrate their value to the populace and politicians alike.
Librarians targeted the priorities and aspirations of their local community rejecting cookie cutter formulas for library services and structures. Successful libraries started forging their own path while remaining true to the values and mission of librarianship. In some communities book collections were increased, in others maker spaces created. In still others libraries took to the streets pushing WiFi Internet access to their entire communities.
Public libraries in the U.S. also engaged a wider swath of the community – not simply regular members that entered under their roofs. Responding to a lack of community spaces where people could engage with others who are not just like them librarians brought together people on issues of concern to the community, facilitated collaboration, and directly helped communities make positive change.
The narrative of crisis is useful, but fleeting in its impact and exhausting and demoralising for those within the profession. A cry of alert had to be matched with a call to action, and, important in times of economic hardship, a compelling value proposition.
We learned that value goes far beyond economics and business development (though we had ample data to make that case). Value can include contributions to economic development, but it must include clear contributions to how librarians and libraries make life better.
Expanding culture, providing learning opportunities beyond the classroom, and helping adults constantly update their skills are examples. It had to show concrete means of developing better citizenship. And it had to go far beyond books.
As I read reactions to the Seigehart report, and the discussion of loos and WiFi I almost always run across some reminder that books are important. Why? Learning is much more than books. We no more want to turn people into passive consumers of books than consumers of anything else.
Libraries must be places that create creators; foster makers, and push every man, woman, and child into active stewardship and becoming architects of great societies.
Are books valuable tools in that pursuit? Certainly…as are 3D printers, public access computing, technology classes, and community developed lecture series. Libraries in the states returned to the most fundamental definition of a library: a platform for the community to learn and teach.
Yes, libraries are safe places to encounter dangerous ideas, but they are also publishers of local culture and local expertise – not some paternalistic purveyors of literature. It's not about reading; it's about knowing. It's not about escape where libraries act as some sort of oasis, but engagement.
Librarians in the states are also learning they must turn from the rhetoric of community deficits. Certainly communities across the US, and indeed the world, have major issues with literacy, access to resources, and a plethora of other issues. But to constantly interact with the community through reminders of where communities fail, invites failure, and wins no friends. Also libraries are not a form of charity – a gift from the haves to the poor have nots.
Librarians and the libraries they run are turning to the dreams and aspirations of citizens – all citizens. The libraries of the UK, like the US were vital in inspiring great advances in science and the arts and government. They did this not by simply stocking shelves, but by actively locking together communities of scholars, disseminating the great ideas of great minds, and actively building networks of understanding and knowledge.
Today in the U.S. the homeless depend on public libraries and so do inventors; mothers learning about parenting and pre-literacy instruction; children seeking refuge from an over structured school curriculum to pursue their own lines of inquiry; wealthy readers wanting guidance and intellectual companionship; seniors needing help with technology; authors seeking a publisher and a partner; girls seeing advancement in science; boys seeking a playground of the mind; and even professors and politicians who need credible input to research and policy
Ready to help
So as I sit across the Atlantic, and watch the agony and crisis in UK public libraries, I am alarmed. I am also hopeful. It is not the hope of willful ignorance, or some ungrounded belief that all things turn out right in the end. I am hopeful, because I have seen the power of millions coming together around big ideas.
I have seen a profession, once obsessed with artifacts and dismissed as a relic regain its footings in knowledge and learning. I am hopeful because I have seen communities retake their libraries. Not in the form of throwing out professionals for volunteers, but by re-tasking the professionals with the most fundamental tasks of any community: education, citizenship, and being radical agents for positive change.
The road ahead for the UK libraries is not easy, but neither, I believe, is it short. It begins by first envisioning the future, making a clear plan to get there, and rallying around our communities.
That Top Gear episode I started with had a very striking ending. After all the jokes and insults the crew pulled into New Orleans, a city ravaged by hurricane Katrina. What began as humorous satire became a deadly earnest social commentary.
The hosts drove through desolate streets still littered with abandoned houses and crushing poverty. It was an honest mirror that rightfully made the U.S. audience uncomfortable. Upon seeing the desperate need of the residents of washed out neighborhoods the hosts scrapped their plans to sell their cars, and instead chose to try and help – even if it was a little bit. They gave away their cars to those in need. Right now across the ocean I reach out my hand to ask how I can help. So too do my colleagues in the US and around the world.
Join the conversation at CILIP 2015
We have a lot to talk about. I will be speaking at this year’s CILIP annual conference in Liverpool and look forward to learning more about UK libraries and how I can help.
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