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Ayub Khan Blog onIFLA World Vision

Qatar panel sesssions – Ayub Khan blogs

CILIP President Ayub Khan MBEblogs about his participation in a panel session following the official opening of the country's new National Library, which he attended.

My panel discussion topic was: What can libraries offer beyond books? I argued that pub-lic libraries have always offered more than books - but never more so than today.

Whilst digital developments offer new and exciting opportunities for libraries, books are still fundamental and, I believe, will remain so. British libraries lend out more than 400 million books a year. Meanwhile e-book lending seems to have peaked and is no longer rising.

We should no longer differentiate between physical and online library services. Nowadays the two are interdependent and complementary. We have seen significant growth in the use of digital services over recent years but, at the same time, increasing demand for library events and activities providing opportunities for real social interaction.

The point is well made by Jamie Andrews, Head of Culture and Learning at the British Library who said, in a recent interview: “In our digitally enabled age there's a continuing desire for public spaces which allow people to work and study together. As well as putting more of our collections online, we find there's also an appetite for things that are original and authentic.” Popular attractions at the British Library include Beatles manuscripts and author Jane Austen’s writing desk.

Research in the UK is providing mounting evidence for the wider benefits of libraries – and their positive impact on people’s health, wellbeing, education, prospects, ambitions, and quality of life. There is also evidence that they are good for the economy, and for social cohesion – bringing people of all ages and backgrounds together in a public space like no other.

The main point I would like to make is about literacy – which libraries have always promoted. Nowadays digital literacy is just as important – and libraries have a huge role to play in making sure no-one is digitally disadvantaged in our increasingly online world.

Libraries are making digital technology available to everyone and helping people to improve their digital skills and confidence, and explore new opportunities. For example, we have recently opened new Makerspaces in two Warwickshire libraries. Makerspaces are places where people of all ages can try out the latest digital kit (for free) and learn how to use it in fun, exciting and creative ways.

There are, of course, challenges: We need to make sure people know the about wider range of services today’s libraries offer. This applies both to the general public, in terms of in-creasing membership and usage, and to decision-makers who need to be aware of the real value of libraries and the contributions they make. We need to attract talented individuals to join the library profession, and we need new ways of measuring success that are qualitative not just quantitative. As Albert Einstein once said: “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be count-ed.”

Opportunities abound: There is potential to work together more closely across international boundaries - to learn from each other and share ideas, experiences and enthusiasm. This might include seminars for sharing good practice, setting up a regional centre for education and learning about library and information science, and more exchange of material, special collections and exhibitions – to help develop a better understanding of culture and heritage in different parts of the world.

Library design

During the panel discussion, delegates asked questions about library design so I will add some brief thoughts on that topic:

There is a popular misconception in my country that new library buildings are a rare thing. It has also been suggested that libraries are no longer relevant, and that digital technology will eventually make them redundant. Neither is, in fact, the case. Libraries are evolving – not dying out. They are reinventing themselves - as they have done throughout their history – in response to socio-economic shifts, demographic pressures, changing customer demands and expectations, and digital age. Design has a big part to play.


A ‘new wave’ of ultra-modern libraries are being built around the world - and Qatar is a prime example. Smart cities now demand smart libraries, particularly with big data and heightened awareness of environmental issues. Visual impact and bold architecture make a strong statement, affirming commitment to culture and learning.The key design principles are making space for people that is convenient to access and use, and where people can freely interact - but which is also flexible and can be modified to reflect changing interests.

To paraphrase Ranganathan, in his Five Laws of Library Science, the library is never finished and continuously adapts to meet changing needs. When I started my library career, about 25 years ago, around 70% of library space was traditionally occupied by books and borrowing points with only 30% for other activities – now it’s the other way round.

Underpinning all modern library design is the fundamental principle of customer focus. Recent research in my own country suggests most library users are browsers and only 1 in 4 are looking for something specific. So libraries, like shops, need to showcase what they offer in tempting ways.

Finally: well-designed, welcoming buildings are really important but, in my opinion, the library staff and their skills are even more important. I would like to end with a quote from a former British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, which I used in my book on library design: “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.”

This makes the point that good design influences user behaviour.


Contributor: Ayub Khan

Published: 12 June 2018

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