Libraries could be leaders once again

From The Bookseller:

As they try to re-open, public libraries have two big problems and three large advantages.

The first problem, obviously, is that they have to be so safe that people actually want to work in and visit them. I don’t think anyone anywhere has solved that problem yet – but I’m sure there are experts who are trying to find a way. Without the answers, those who open aren’t being brave; they are being stupid and placing other people at risk. It is the absolute and top priority.

The second problem, which the library sector has been reluctant to face for far too long, is that their reputation with the public has declined. They are no longer respected in the way they once were. They have represented themselves too much as caring for the needy, and they have to do more than that. They have to be useful to everyone, otherwise they are not worth the £750 million each year we pay for them. They have to give dignified expert service. Most people don’t want feel they are being treated as poor and needy, even if they are. Their greatest audience lies with people who like and want to read, but at present public libraries only appeal to about 10% of people who read. They need to treble that number – and that won’t happen unless they become serious about acquiring and paying for better collections. They also need to get better at  capturing and responding to data around their performance, otherwise they don’t know where to direct their resources.

These are both hard problems.

The first advantage they have is that there are nearly 3000 public libraries in England. So, if a small group of architects, designers, medical experts and appropriate scientists could find a way to make a public library into a beacon of good health, they could apply the lessons they learn with sensible economy to the entire estate. That’s important because at the moment no one is thinking that way. The work is being done by 150 councils with very little substantial investment in finding the solution. It would be worthwhile.

The second is that public library buildings are mostly quite big. It’s not hard to imagine that most retailers, faced with the problem of making their buildings safe to visit, wish they had more cheap space. Schools and colleges must feel the same. Yet, thanks to some historical quirk of philanthropy, public library buildings are usually very spacious; certainly many times larger than a local book store. If that space could be re-organised, it provides an opportunity to model best practice in terms of public health.

The third lead is, for me, the one with the potential to impact the wider book trade the most. The last few months haven’t just been about the spread of viral infection – they have highlighted a huge issue of our understanding, appreciation, acknowledgement of and writing for the diverse people of our world. This topic is not about whether graduate publishers with ambitions to work in London can be forced to work in Grimsby. Or whether the head count in an office meets some standard of an ethnicity table. It’s about what is written and where it is available to be read. The issue of diversity is much larger than that – and for a long time, public libraries held the answer.

. . . .

Libraries seemed genuinely to have found a way to respond to the real variety of local taste, cultures and interests. They sought out and served. They didn’t preach. They didn’t suffer from the same kind of snobbery that runs through the veins of elite publishers and booksellers. Inclusive not exclusive, they had something to teach.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG will mention once again that ebook lending by libraries in many different places has most certainly moved to much greater prominence during the last few months.