An ode to the public library, the gateway to an educated society


Abbey Library in Kremsmnster, Austria/My Modern Met

This article was adapted from Geoff Gallop’s speech for the Premier’s Book Awards at the State Library of Western Australia, July 26, 2019.

Let me begin by asking what it is that comes to mind when libraries are the topic of conversation. Is it books and information? Is it reading and silence? Is it librarians and their vocation to protect the historical record? Is it the challenge of new technology? Is it about the very survival of libraries? All of these things matter, and academic Stuart Kells has provided us with a good summary of the contemporary state of play:

“Reports of the death of the library are certainly exaggerated. People, including young people, continue to use and appreciate libraries. People are still investing in libraries, and they are still buying and reading books. But the libraries and their custodians are engaged in hot battles on multiple fronts, including the fight against underfunding and creeping volunteerism, and the epochal clash between analogue and digital content.”1

It’s the case, of course, that the “fight” and the “clash” that Kells talks about are linked. “Who needs a library?” says the economic rationalist advising government, “when just about everything that’s been published can be accessed online?”

Fulfilling a classic need, whilst moving with the times

This is a challenge not just for libraries. Lots of products and services are becoming obsolete, and the firms that provided them are under threat in the digital era. Television networks and newspapers. Taxi companies. Retail clothing chains. Hotels. Bookstores… the list goes on.

There’s another aspect to this as well, and that is the shift in “the balance of power in the marketplace from the seller to the buyer. The customer is now in charge.”2 Saying that customers are “in charge” may be an exaggeration, but I’m sure that both public and private enterprises understand the point. Managing isn’t easy when faced with the “the wants and needs of fickle customers”.3

Taking this idea of customer power as a starting point, management consultant Steve Denning4 lists five questions that libraries need to ask:

  • How can we delight our users and customers?
  • How can we manage the library to enable continuous innovation?
  • What will make things better, faster, cheaper, more mobile, more convenient or more personalised for our users?
  • What needs could libraries meet that users haven’t yet even thought of?

That’s four, and what I would call management-type questions that libraries all over the world have been answering in different ways, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, depending on the support of funders and the creativity of librarians.

This takes me to his last, and all-too-often ignored question, “What are the things that libraries are currently doing that users already love?” We might change it slightly by adding “and what the community expects of them.” I would judge that users and citizens like what libraries have been able to do by integrating old and new. To quote Kells again:

“In the curation and mobilisation of collections and resources, librarians are making the best of our digital future, without discarding our analogue past (although many rightly bemoan the loss of physical card catalogues and the tangible, fractal, serendipitous experiences that came with them).

“Rare and fragile books are being digitised on a massive scale; scandalous and hitherto-hidden books are being let out; and librarians are helping to curate and navigate the messy, unbounded and uncooperative soup that we call the internet.”5

So it is that when I want to read something I either go to the University of Sydney Library in person or stay in bed and see if what I want is online. There’s already a lot there online, but is this “in-bed” option up to the mark? Is it enough?  What do you miss out on by relying on what can be delivered on what we once called “the information super-highway”?

The interior of the Herbert Smith Freehills Law Library at the University of Sydney

It’s my experience there is a discipline and a delight to seeking what you want in a library itself — and people to help you along the way.

When I needed material for my local history project6 which involved the publication of pamphlets on the origins and history of all of the suburbs in my electorate, including their pre-European history, as best it could be determined, where did I go for guidance and source material? Answer — my local government libraries and the Battye Library. The gathering of such material is seen as part of their duty as custodians of records pertaining to our history.

I have this inclination to study, and if it is evil, I am not the one who formed me thus

When I was recently in the Mexican city of San Miguel de Allende — along with my wife, who was doing a six-week painting course — where did I go each day? Answer : the Public Library, which had a wonderful collection of English books, access to the internet, and a courtyard coffee shop that only a Spanish-speaking country, like Mexico, could imagine. It was not just a library, but a meeting place, educational centre for young and old, and an information centre for local arts and cultural endeavours. I went to a lecture on and became interested in Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a 17th century Mexican nun regarded as the founder of feminism in the Americas. She said of herself, “I have this inclination to study, and if it is evil, I am not the one who formed me thus — I was born with it and with it I shall die”. Being an excellent cook, she also pointed out that “one can perfectly well philosophise while cooking supper”. In one of her many poems, she wrote: “You foolish men who lay the guilt on women, not seeing you’re the cause of the very thing you blame”.

The San Miguelle de Allende Public Library courtyard. /Twitter

Libraries attract people — and we know they do — not only because of the information that can be accessed — or advice about how that can be done — but also because of what they represent in a world that favours action over inaction and doing over thinking. Libraries are places of silence, of reading and contemplative enquiry generally. It’s a quiet place full of activity unseen. Just imagine a world without such institutions and the wisdom they can bring, not just to the individual but to the communities from which they come. We need a culture, observed the English Buddhist Ken Jones, “In which the work of contemplative enquiry — alone, and with others — is no less important than earning a living, raising a family, and keeping physically healthy. This would not heal our divisions overnight, but it would begin to dissolve the underlying bloody-mindedness that makes them so intractable. It would nurture wisdom and compassion and a host of skilful means”.7

Libraries facilitate what it means “to be educated”

In my experience, I’ve noted a wonderfully mysterious element associated with libraries: the world within is so much larger than the world without. You might be catching up on the latest journals and find a new issue to consider or a new way of looking at one that has been worrying you. All of this is a matter of chance, but more often than not, you come out thinking differently in some way or another. It’s part of what it means to be educated.

Contained with a library are collections of material that may yet be researched or researched properly, and attached to which are established views, little questioned or reviewed, perhaps for decades. Then, one day a scholar who has been there — day in and day out, beavering away — will provide us with a new way of looking at things. It’s the case that there are truths within, yet to be found, and no matter how hard we try to close the door, there’s always more there.

In saying this, I note that it is often the libraries themselves that are telling these stories or encouraging individuals and communities to tell theirs or submit material that may so help others. Here, I’m thinking of initiatives like the State Library of Western Australia’s “Storylines”, a project involving a partnership with indigenous WA. It’s great to see libraries taking up the challenge in this way. In saying this I note, too, the interesting article inThe Conversation pointing out that libraries were an excellent space within which local communities could engage in their own, localised version of scenario planning. Libraries are, says the author Matthew Finch, places with the “capacity to connect people”.8

What we see, then, is a creative mixture of the old and the new, a safe and accessible space generally, but more specifically for low income, marginalised and disadvantaged groups for whom the digital divide is reality. As Curtin University academics Amanda Buckley and John Phillimore have noted in their survey of literature on libraries:

“Libraries serve as a major public outlet for free internet and assistance for people with no access, insufficient access, or insufficient digital literacy”.9

Biblioteca Vasconcelos, Mexico

Indeed, what’s particularly important about libraries is that they are there for everyone — as are the librarians who work within them; all of this in a world where “free, unfettered access to information is at risk due to the rapid transformation of the internet into a commercial platform and marketplace”10 By their very nature, they want people to yearn for more information and the knowledge that comes from it. This makes them an important bulwark against those who see beliefs and the feelings attached to them as enough and not requiring critical examination, particularly when being applied in the real world. This world that invites us into its post-truth, where carelessness overthrows complexity, avoids depth, and pretends integrity. Writers understand its weakness only too well. As Samuel Johnson observed, “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading in order to write: a man will turn over half a library to make one book.”11

References

  1. “The Library – Humanist Ideal, Social Glue and Now, Tourism Hotspot”, The Conversation, 31 May 2019.
  2.  Steve Denning, “Do we need Libraries?”, Forbes, 28 April 2015.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. See “The Library…”
  6. See Geoff Gallop, “A sense of place for a sense of community”, in R. Horgan (ed.), A Time to Keep – preserving the past for the future (1995).
  7. See “Buddhist Views on the Practice of Politics”, Lions Roar, 21 October 2016.
  8. “How libraries can help prepare us for the future”, The Conversation, 19 July 2019.
  9. “The Value of Libraries”, Curtin University, June 2019.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (2004), p.430.

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