Monica Ali and Philip Pullman amongst others have offered powerful defences of libraries based on their role in promoting and supporting learning and social mobility. This legacy of deep appreciation is high and deserved praise for librarians and library spaces across the UK. But it risks obscuring the core of this argument – one that is about the function of libraries at their best, not about their form.
The mission of the New York Public Library (NYPL) is to ‘Advance knowledge, inspire life-long learning, and strengthen our communities’. This holds true as a useful backbone for evaluating options for reform.
These aims do not rely on traditional library spaces and vast local book collections. In fact, many risk being undermined by outdated buildings, intimidating search systems and over-busy staff. At NYPL, some of the best used community resources are atypical and highly focussed on local need. The high-circulating, tiny library in a shop front at a subway station for example. Or the teen room that looks nothing like a library at the amazing Bronx Library Centre, with laptops and computer games available.
One practical way to enshrine the values espoused by libraries – and to support their work in new ways in years to come – might be to hand over their operations to a local Trust made up of local people, fantastic librarians and representatives of other community services. They could define what needed to happen in a distinct, ‘library’ building and what could happen elsewhere. Most importantly, they could keep evolving services over time as the volume of information, and the ways we access it continue to change.
This is not the same thing as asking local communities to run traditional libraries. It is definitely not the same thing as cutting traditional library services and not replacing them. But if the critically important functions of libraries are well understood and maintained, and their form is allowed to flex in response to local conditions, then who delivers it, where and how should be up for grabs.