That library debate
This is a thing I wrote for a library focused blog about the library debate that happened in Wellington earlier this week. It’s aimed at librarians but it’s relevant to Wellington and Wellington City Libraries. I’ve tweaked it slightly.
I received an email from the Library Association (LIANZA) last week suggesting that I might be interested in a event. It was being organised by a coalition of library supporters concerned about budget cuts to Wellington Libraries. So far – fantastic! A group from the community who “coordinate efforts against the steady deterioration of library services in Wellington, advocates for users and staff of public libraries and brings together groups” (who also support libraries). The teams looked like an interesting mix of people with a variety of experiences. They looked like they would be very entertaining. Brilliant.
Then it all went horribly wrong.
The moot was “Are libraries worth saving?“
I was unequivocal about my reaction on Twitter.
No. I am not interested in a debate on “Are Libraries Worth Saving?” Thanks though. #FarCough
— librarykris (@librarykris) August 27, 2013
I am ashamed to say that I didn’t send this to LIANZA. I’m telling myself that it was best that I step away for a few days because it made me so MAD. Both the moot, AND that a professional library organisation would send it round to their members thus legitimising the debate. As someone said “May as well just ask: “is culture worth saving?“” What I’m interested in doing now is unpacking one of the opinions expressed by the affirmative team and how they might have come to those conclusions.
Here’s a tweet from @wizzyrea reporting on those arguments from the affirmative team. There are a few more on her account regarding the debate.
Focus on a library as a physical space, warehouse, not as a community learning centre or gathering place.
— Liz Rea (@wizzyrea) September 3, 2013
Further discussion with Liz indicates that the lack of focus on the library as a community learning space or gathering place was more by omission than statement. She had to leave early, so the concept of library as ‘third place’ may have come up later in the debate. Extrapolating wildly from this comment, I think that the affirmative team regards the public library as a giant bookshelf for physical books.
Is that all Wellington City Libraries is?
Maybe…of course not. Every time I go in I see people sitting at desks and chairs. Their laptops are open or they are reading books – to themselves or to others. I don’t know how long they stay there to assess whether they are using the library place as anything other than somewhere to pause. However, they are there, using the space as a place. So how does the idea of ‘library as warehouse’ persist?
Library circulation stats were reported in the paper recently (they’re rising, as is the percentage of active library members) but there wasn’t anything about foot traffic. The library blogs are heavy on promoting books, with different formats thrown in occasionally. A couple of recent exceptions to this are the winter game night and Amanda Palmer ninja gig posts which describe how the space is being used. (That’s as far through old posts as I got before being overwhelmed by the book-iness of them.) The sheer number of book synopsis posts reinforces the notion that libraries = books. I know why they’re blogging like this, I get that… Sometimes I think libraries are our own worst enemy. We don’t demonstrate all the facets of our operation.
I’ll be at #LIANZA13 if you want to chat further about this. I’ll welcome you with open arms because I need to learn how to articulate the ways in which libraries are essential to a healthy community without getting inarticulate with rage over misguided events from library supporters.
In the meantime I’ll be reading Why are New Zealand libraries letting their enemies write “the final chapter”?* by Dr Matt Finch to remind me why libraries need to be ubiquitous in our communities, educational institutions, and businesses.
*tl;dr “Libraries are about helping the public to explore the world of knowledge and culture on their own terms.“