Booker Prize nominees speak out against library cuts

Tony Durcan, Stephen Kelman, Carol Birch & A.D. Miller at Booker Prize British Library event

Tony Durcan, Stephen Kelman, Carol Birch & A.D. Miller at the British Library Photograph: Katy McDonnell

I’ve become a bit obsessed with the Booker Prize this year – writing for the Datablog and the From the Archive blog, and reading all six just in time for the ceremony tonight (I’m glad it’s “too readable” this year, they’re all cracking reads!).

So I was delighted to attend a Man Booker/British Library event last week in support of public libraries. Shortlisted authors Carol Birch, Stephen Kelman and AD Miller took part in the Q&A session for public librarians and reading groups, alongside Tony Durcan from the Society of Chief Librarians.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, all three authors spoke about their love of libraries. Birch recalled weekly trips to the library, which was “just what everyone did” when she was growing up. Kelman, nominated for Pigeon English, grew up on a London estate like the one in his debut novel. He credited his local library with fostering his love of reading and getting him to where he is today.

Miller, another first time fiction writer, said libraries had played different roles at different times in his life, from feeding an early Agatha Christie obsession to researching his books and now, with a three-year-old daughter, getting him acquainted with the “Julia Donaldson empire”. He called libraries “a hugely important part of my life that I take for granted, until perhaps it is almost too late.”

Bookies’ favourite Julian Barnes, nominated for The Sense of an Ending, could not attend but sent a message of support, saying: “The cost of our free public library system is small, its value immense. To diminish and dismantle it would be a kind of national self-mutilation, as stupid as it would be wicked.”

A message from nominee Esi Edugyan echoed the panel, calling libraries “a place where people can encounter their possible lives between the covers of a book.” I love that description, what a world of possibilities libraries offer!

The writers also took questions on their nominated novels. It was really fascinating, having just read them, to hear from the authors themselves. I won’t detail everything here, in case of spoilers!

Asked about the criticism from some quarters that selections for this year’s Booker are “too readable”, the panel confessed to not having read the shortlist (understandably, not wanting to know how strong the competition is!), though Miller pointed out that “those carping often haven’t read them either.”

And the pigeon? Kelman said he thought his narrator should have a father figure, but he understood it might not work for everyone.

Book review: Marilyn Johnson, This Book Is Overdue!

I really enjoyed reading Marilyn Johnson’s This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All. If anyone is in doubt about the digital role librarians can, and already do, play in the 21st century I’d recommend a read.

Johnson doesn’t draw any earth-shattering conclusions from her foray into the world of cybrarians (not sure I like that word btw, sounds a bit like a Marvel villain), but her thorough study highlights a lot of the pros, and the pitfalls, of moving libraries of all shapes and sizes into the digital world.

I came away with a really positive attitude, fired up to explore all the applications I’d learned about; it’s kind of career-affirming, at a time when it seems our industry is being battered from all sides.

Marilyn Johnson, Brewster Kahle and the risks of leaping into digital with both feet

I’ve been out of the loop for a couple of weeks, camping in the not-quite-wilds of Northumberland. It’s strange being so disconnected from the web (I didn’t even have mobile reception for a lot of the time); it’s made me realise how much I rely on the internet to stay connected, to people, to the news, to the industry.

Having time away also meant I finished reading This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians And Cybrarians Can Save Us All, by Marilyn Johnson. So even though I had two weeks internet-free, I spent it reading about digital librarians!

Marilyn Johnson’s book, which I’ll review separately, takes on new meaning in light of Seth Godin’s article The future of the library (and apologies if the debate has moved on while I’ve been away!).

Godin’s central argument was that fusty old librarians need to ditch the paper and move into the digital sphere. Johnson’s book provides ample evidence that librarians have been working online for decades (OCLC, the Online Computer Library Center, was founded in 1967, when the web was a mere twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye).

It also raises the risk of libraries leaping into digital without considering the ramifications for non-digitised, specialised collections, which can have funding and space cut, or be lost entirely.

A similar issue was raised this week by Brewster Kahle on the Internet Archive blog:

A reason to preserve the physical book that has been digitized is that it is the authentic and original version that can be used as a reference in the future. If there is ever a controversy about  the digital version, the original can be examined. A seed bank such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is seen as an authoritative and safe version of crops we are growing. Saving physical copies of digitized books might at least be seen in a similar light as an authoritative and safe copy that may be called upon in the future.

I was involved with digitising the Guardian and Observer a few years ago, creating a fantastic online resource of newspaper articles dating back to 1791 that would otherwise not be widely accessible. But we would never have considered scrapping the bound originals, or even the microfilm copies, once digitisation was complete.

Digitising books and library collections is an important step forward, but until a system is designed that is 100% reliable, not open to corruption or human error, and with a long-term shelf life, it would be madness to do away with paper collections altogether.  

Seth Godin: The fallout continues

Seth Godin’s piece on the future of libraries is continuing to foster debate in the biblioblogosphere (not sure about that term, but can’t think of a better one!).

PC Sweeney makes a good point over on his blog, that while Seth may have a misconception of what a present-day library looks like, the fact he doesn’t know that many librarians already embrace digital resources is our fault as a profession. Essentially, it’s fine to provide ebooks, increase web terminals and use social media but if we don’t tell anyone about it, how can we expect to attract new users?

While I agree that librarians need to get proactive, need to get out there and market our services, I still think Seth should have taken a proper look at the industry before he formulated his argument. But Sweeney makes a good argument and is worth a read (a bit of blog love goes a long way :) ).

Research: The Reading Agency’s Digital Research Report

The Reading Agency’s Digital Research Report (see article in this month’s Cilip Update) contains some interesting statistics on the current level of digital engagement in UK public libraries.

The news is positive in terms of engagement – a majority of libraries (66.7%) use online resources for marketing, and 59.6% provide wifi access. Many also use digital resources in reading activities (65.5% use digital photographs, 32.7% use Twitter), and 40.4% “use social media to engage with young people”.

But work still needs to be done to promote the proper application of digital media. Training is patchy, and over 98% of respondents don’t have a digital strategy.

Using digital media is all well and good, but if you don’t apply it appropriately you won’t get the most out of it. Rather than eagerly jumping on the digital bandwagon, it pays to consider the best (and most cost-effective) ways your library can utilise digital media first.

Articles: Seth Godin, The future of the library

Seth Godin’s article The future of the library, based on a talk he gave recently (there’s a good summary of the talk on Nancy Dowd’s blog), has sparked an interesting debate. It’s always a little galling when a non-librarian tries to tell information professionals how to do their jobs. I’d overlook that if the arguments were sound, but in this case they’re not.

Godin opens with an apt description of a librarian (although we could all add to it, as Bobbi Newman points out):

The librarian isn’t a clerk who happens to work at a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the article reinforces Godin’s belief in the stereotype of librarian as clerk, declaring that films are “a mere sideline that most librarians resented anyway”, exhorting us to stop “defending library as warehouse”, and arguing that “what we don’t need are mere clerks who guard dead paper” – absolutely right Mr. Godin, but then this ceased to define a librarian many, many moons ago.

The thrust of Godin’s argument is that while librarians can still play a key role in a digital future, libraries themselves are a thing of the past. Why go to a physical library when you can access all the information you need through a computer screen? Why borrow a book, or a DVD, when you can get them cheaply online?

They need a librarian more than ever (to figure out creative ways to find and use data). They need a library not at all.

As Phil Bradley and Bobbi Newman point out in their blog responses, this is an incredibly simplistic, unrealistic view of the situation as it currently stands. Not everyone can use a computer. Not everyone who can knows where to look for the information they need. And not every source of information on the web is reliable (Wikipedia is the only resource named, and we all know how unreliable that is). To say nothing of the stripped-down budgets public libraries are currently dealing with.

Godin bases his argument on a totally outdated library model; he overlooks, for example, the fact that the vast majority of libraries already subscribe to online reference databases, and that most librarians already work with digital as well as paper resources.

Yes, we should be “fighting for the future, which is librarian as producer, concierge, connector, teacher and impresario.”

 Yes, “the library ought to be the local nerve center for information.”

But that nerve centre must include online and offline resources, or we risk alienating and disenfranchising a chunk of the population who aren’t web- and tech-savvy, or can’t afford to be.

Further reading:

Save Our Libraries

Pile of books

My reading list for the next few months

So it’s been a while… Maternity leave will do that to you! But I had to flag up the events of today, Save Our Libraries day –  aimed at putting pressure on councils to keep libraries open at a time of budget cuts, but also to encourage people to value librarians in general, and the unique skillset they bring to the table. This industry has struggled of late, and it’s about time librarians were appreciated and respected.

I made a kind of pre-emptive strike at my local library, South Friern, on Wednesday because I wasn’t around today. I have a pile of books sitting in my hall waiting to be read, which makes me smile every time I pass it, and a pile of children’s books to work through as well. My three-year-old loves his weekly trip to the library, and I signed up my 4-month-old as Barnet’s newest member after her baby rhyme time debut this week (yet another valuable free library service). 

The Guardian has been running a live blog all day, covering events around the country (although our library has shrunk from a staff of 15 when I started a decade ago to 5 1/2 now, so we’re not exactly immune either – just sayin’). Reading through the comments, this one really struck a chord and encapsulates perfectly the crucial role public libraries play for every member of the community.

The biggest risk in closing public libraries and mobile libraries is that the most vunerable groups – the poor, the unemployed, the elderly – will be disenfranchised. Let’s hope Jeremy Hunt, and councillors around the UK, are paying close attention.

Check out We Love Libraries for more on the campaign to save our libraries.