Tuesday, September 28, 2010

#libdebate - What are Libraries for?

Last Wednesday night I was in Birmingham at the joint CILIP West Midlands and Birmingham Salon event: The Library Debate - What are libraries for?

It took place in very smart surroundings at The Studio in the centre of Birmingham and at my estimate there were just over 80 people there. A good mix of librarians and non-librarians turned up and the debate was very interesting. It wasn't entirely what I expected, I thought it would be a debate about if should we continue to fund libraries, or are they outdated and irrelevant? However it was more a kind of traditional vs. modern discussion with some falling strongly on the side of the traditional silent libraries with lots of books, and others just as strongly on the side of diversifying library services to cater for a wider audience and introducing new innovations.

Jess Humphreys (@jesshumphreys on twitter) from Warwick University was tweeting live for CILIP West Midlands and did a great job keeping up with the conversation. There were quite a few tweeters in the room (including @damyantipatel @sarahbartlett1 @geoshore and @joeyanne ) and quite a few tweeting ideas and comments in remotely. The debate was wider that the people physically there, which was great, and yet another example of the power of social networking to get information and ideas out into the world (and back into the event). The archive of tweets is available via TwapperKeeper.

The debate was opened by Brian Gambles, the Assistant Director of Culture and Head of Birmingham Libraries Service, who made a very passionate argument for the new Library of Birmingham being a partnership with local communities and other organisations in order to keep it relevant to a modern society and provide a range of new and different services alongside the traditional supply of books and study space.

Brian was followed by Andy Killeen local author who offered a kind of story about his memories of libraries growing up and how he felt the traditional library was important in shaping his life and the person he is now.

Comment from the floor was very interesting, and included a range of opinions from those who felt very strongly that we should preserve and celebrate silence and availability of books, to those who felt there should be more community involvement in developing shared and innovative services. (One point of contention was whether or not noisy children should be welcome in libraries - that issue raised a bit of blood pressure).

There were examples given of library projects that push the boundaries somewhat. I think my favourite such example was the Human Libraries project spoken about by Lorna Prescott (@dosticen). The project allows people to borrow a person and talk to them about a given subject on which they are well informed.

Personally I think there is room for both. I think Libraries do need to recognise how the demands of their user groups are changing, they do need to innovate and introduce new ideas, as any organisation does. But they also need to remember their roots, and not forget to provide the traditional study space and access to traditional materials that has for so long been their core service. A lot of people pay a lot of money to have access to silence and books, just check out the membership fees at the London Library for an example - they are considerably higher than the membership rates for CILIP). There is still a place for the traditional, but if we are to remain to current to the masses (as we must to survive) we need to offer variety and keep in touch with developments in the information world.

It was a great night with lots of engagement from librarians and non-librarians alike (and a decent amount of free wine!). There is more information and comment on the CILIP West Midlands blog, and more to follow soon in the CILIP West Mids newsletter coming to members in November.

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