Monday, 27 September 2010

What are libraries for?

Last week I attended a Birmingham Salon debate enticingly titled ‘what are libraries for?’ There were around 70 attendees, filling the room at the Studio on Cannon Street. We heard first from Brian Gambles, Assistant Director, Culture, Birmingham City Council. He talked about the new Birmingham Library and that the challenge was not about designing a building, but designing a service. He feels that libraries are a public space for reading and for learning. The new Birmingham Library service has a focus on partnership and personalised services. It is up to us as library users to shape the service, it won’t be dictated.

We then heard from Andy Killeen, a local author and library user. He reminisced about his library use, evoking memories for me in his talk of the smells and sounds of libraries which you remember from when you were young. He spoke of a library as being luxurious indulgence, and reminded us that libraries make writers as well as readers.

The debate then started, with a key area of difference seeming to arise between those who feel that libraries are places to read and learn, whether via the medium of books or something else, and those who seemed to want libraries to be warehouses for storing books.

Kate Millin from Dudley Libraries made a great point about the values on which libraries services are run, and that libraries are a local, national and international network – through them you can access materials from anywhere in the world! I love the idea of libraries as networks.

I can’t help feeling that libraries should be valued much more than they are. I heard a park keeper, Fredy Temalema speak at a Chamberlain Forum event on open spaces. Fredy had asked park users ‘what is a park?’ He told us that the answers were: A park is a hospital. A park is a school. A park is a gym. A park is a church. I feel that libraries are all these things and more. Our experience in Dudley of piloting a Human Library highlighted how important a neutral space is, which enables sharing and learning, even between people who may not be the greatest readers. Along with parks, libraries are one of few non-commercial places where we can rub shoulders with people living very different lives to us. That feels important.

The other fascinating element to the libraries debate was that it was my first experience of being at an event with an official tweeter, and not only that but I somehow ended up sitting on a table at which the vast majority of delegates were tweeting throughout the event. One of them, Jo Alcock, kindly explained to me where I could find an archive of the tweets, and I was quite amazed to discover the conversations which had been taken place at the same time as the debate but unsaid verbally in the room. Some tweets helped people who couldn’t attend the debate to join in remotely, others were more of a conversation between people in the room who had their iphones out. I'm slightly worried about the obsession of some tweeters about people who weren't tweeting, there seems to be a rather militant edge and lack of recognition that some people don't know what twitter is, let alone have the technology to access it. Nonetheless I am absolutely intrigued about how tweeting or similar might create alternative participatory spaces, and wonder how, if used well, it can add constructively to more participatory events.

Watch out Dudley – I’ll be by trying out hastags, tweeters and twitterfalls at Dosti events soon!

You can read more blogs on the libraries event via West Midlands CILIP site.

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