A world on fire
Climate change came to Paradise last year, as California’s wildfires destroyed tens of thousands of buildings forcing over 250,000 people out of their homes. In Paradise, the library was one of a handful of buildings left standing, and quickly became an emergency recovery centre, giving local residents and federal agencies a base to work from and rebuild their community.
In Iraq, wreckers destroyed or looted over 100,000 books and other historical artefacts dating back as far as 5,000 BC, when they placed dynamite and set fires in the libraries of Mosul. To make matters worse, it transpired that Daesh (Islamic State) fundamentalists had commandeered University of Mosul chemistry labs to make their explosives.
Preserving culture, history
Just as the library in Paradise saw duty as an emergency command and control outpost, libraries and archives around the world have a crucial role in preserving the culture, history and values of their communities. In Iraq, the Baghdad National Library has been digitising precious manuscripts
, and there are plans to preserve Syria’s rich historical legacy – such as 3D scanning
and printing to repair or replace artefacts from locations like the doomed temples of Palmyra.
Closer to home, we could argue that similar projects are needed in the UK to preserve local culture and history. I’m really pleased that at Jisc we were able to partner with the British Library to support the digitisation of millions of pages of historical British newspapers which are now available as part of the British Newspaper Archive
As a bus driver’s son who practically lived in his local library as a kid, I’m concerned about the impact of funding cuts on the public library’s core mission. We should be terrified by some of the statistics that we are hearing, such as the 56 per cent decline
in loans of children’s books in Sheffield from 2012 to 2017. This is happening at a time when a third
of our 11-year-olds fail to meet expected standards of numeracy and literacy, and we should surely be throwing everything we can at the problem. As David Walliams says, perhaps we need stronger
statutory protection for public libraries driven by a recognition amongst policymakers of the crucial role that they play – particularly for the vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society
And if we get it right, our libraries can become so much more – true community hubs, co-working centres, hackspaces and makerspaces. Like many readers I’ve been inspired by Taunton’s Glass Box project
, which shows how the public library can reinvent itself and make itself more relevant than ever in our new digital age. However, in the present climate it may be unrealistic to expect councils to provide financial support for projects like this, given that their problems are short-term and many of the benefits are long-term.
So what can we do given that our world (of UK public libraries) is on fire? The decline and dismantling of the UK’s public library sector urgently needs to be reversed – literacy and numeracy are key pre-requisites for near future careers in fourth industrial revolution technologies like robotics and artificial intelligence. Local Enterprise Partnerships may have a key role here, as central government has made funds
available to them for priority areas such as digital skills and digital inclusion. Universities and colleges could also play a crucial role in helping public libraries to move from surviving to thriving.
Time for 20 per cent time?
This doesn’t have to mean expensive new buildings like The Hive in Worcester – it could be much more pragmatic, and a good starting point might be for universities and colleges to explore letting library staff take “20 per cent time”
to support their community libraries. At Google, 20 per cent time gave staff the freedom and permission to innovate that led to products like Gmail and Google Maps. I wonder what our academic librarians could do if they were given a similar opportunity? IP