I’ve been formulating some thoughts about modernising libraries for while now, and this tweet from Neil Jefferies
Libraries looking to get back to "normal" after this. Realise that this may well be the new normal, the library needs to become a virtual rather than a physical space. Funders, this also means that digitisation is back on the map. Big time.
— Neil Jefferies (@NeilSJefferies) April 3, 2020
and a need to take my mind off current work around the coronavirus pandemic for a few minutes has given me added impetus to write about them.
Whilst there’s an obvious need for libraries to be digital, offering access to their catalogue, ebooks, and other services online, I disagree with Neil’s view that they should become a virtual rather than a physical space. I do however think libraries need to change, and here’s why.
Let’s start by asking, what are libraries’ physical spaces currently utilised for the majority of the time?
The answer to this is storing books; not lending books, but storing books and other physical media. Depending on their size they’re warehouses or lock-ups for books that people can’t (given most are closed the majority of the time) or don’t look at.
Those of you who regularly visit your local libraries would have probably noticed this already. The majority of people aren’t browsing the shelves which take up much of the library, they’re gathered in the remaining space, using the library’s or their own device to access information or work.
This is a 19th century model trying to adapt to needs of the 21st, and here’s what I’d do to create a modern library.
I’m sure many librarians will be aghast at this suggestion, but let’s get rid of the books. I’m a fan of books and I’ve even read a couple, so I don’t mean do away with them altogether, but given libraries are really just storage spaces for books most people don’t look at, let’s store them somewhere else.
A small selection of popular titles and current media would be retained in the library and move everything else elsewhere, but close by. This means they can be requested on demand, online or in the library itself and available in a few hours, as books could be moved to and from the nearby store to or three times a day. This happens to some extent now anyway , as books move between libraries, so it’s really just extending it to free up unused space.
This means stock in the library is based on user need rather than a business need to store the books somewhere.
So now we’ve freed up a large amount of the space in the library what are we going to do with it?
The first would be more community events. I volunteer to help with a Code Club in my local library which is heavily over subscribed. Even if you’ve only ever written a few lines of code do consider volunteering for Code Club. I recommend it and I’ve found nothing keeps you sharp like a bunch of ten year olds who need an answer to why their code isn’t working, absolutely, this minute, right now.
Events don’t have to be tech based though, they could be more book groups, talks, demonstrations, and in a small number of cases they could be chargeable, which would help support the events that are free. This would keep local libraries as the thriving hub of communities and help to address the problem of their dwindling numbers due to funding cuts.
The second is more access to the internet. Some of this will be allowing more physical space for people to use their own devices, some of this will be more devices for the public to use, but I think the most important would be, as the world moves from the physical to the virtual, more assisted digital resource.
Pretty soon we won’t be able to purchase things like a holiday or car insurance on the high street as it becomes economically unviable to offer services like those in person, so as a society we’ll need to help out the digitally excluded even more. Some organisations like Age UK have been doing this in libraries for years, but more space and resource to do this means we leave less people behind.
So whilst some aspects of libraries need to be digital or virtual, we don’t need less physical space, we just need to utilise it in a way fit for the needs of today’s society by creating modern libraries.