Saturday, April 29, 2006

Libraries (should) rule

An excellent blog that has started fairly recently is The Good Library Blog. In it, Tim Coates is writing about the absolutely disgraceful, parlous state of UK libraries. Plagued by funding cuts and lack of support from politicians local and national, the reading habits of us all in the UK are under threat. Maybe Tim Coates will provide a focus for action in our most notoriously apathetic nation (animals excepted). He has already provided statistics as to real cuts in funding in central London, outer London and boroughs elsewhere, in successive posts. He's also articulated the scandalous fact that if you live in London, you can't even have a library card that will work throughout the whole city, you need a different one (with all the associated bureaucracy) for each borough. As most people don't work in the same borough in which they live, you begin to see the problem. The situation seems very different in the USA, or so it seems from reading the many fearsomely impressive technical blogs out there, for example The Shifted Librarian, Information wants to be Free, that impressive guy from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and others. (See Petrona 2, or just key in "libraries" into Bloglines and see the riches.) As Mr Coates points out, "One of the underlying causes of the collapse of the public library service is that it has lost contact with the people it is there to serve". The system has no public accountability, so what information is available tends to be that obtained by the media. As he says, "The Times discovered that publishers charge a higher price for a book if it is supplied to a library than if it is supplied to a book shop. There's no reason, other than that they can get away with it." Why aren't librarians themselves agitating about this, Mr Coates asks? And so do I. This week, with local elections coming up and with politicians coming knocking at our doors for a brief few days beforehand (we won't see them again until the next election) , is an opportunity to ask them what they are doing about local libraries. Not only is it election time, but for many students across the UK, exams are coming up in the next weeks (two of them in this house for starters). The indefatigable Mr Coates states: "There isn't a public library in London open on any bank holiday and hardly any of them are open in the evenings. Few of them have the books and other material that are recommended or discussed on the thousands of study courses that are available in London. London is the learning centre of the world, but our public library service is an international disgrace. The public library ought to be the place that everyone needs at exam time, but such is the low standard of service that is offered that no one even thinks of them as a place to use. Somewhere you can get out of the house, or your flat and a bedsit and make a little corner with your books and notes in a quiet well lit place. That's what a library should be. " If you are in the UK (or even if not), go and visit The Good Library Blog. It will rile you up, provide links to some interesting books, and maybe give you some ideas about what we can all do about this parlous state of affairs. In the Royal Borough of Kingston, where I live, the council is always doing surveys and consulting residents (and then, it seems, ignoring what they say and introducing stupid residents' parking schemes or selling off yet another piece of land for an office or luxury housing block, rather than a park or a school). A few years ago, RBK (as it calls itself) included in one of these surveys a comparative question in which local taxpayers were asked to rank services in order of value to them. On the list were schools, hospitals, care homes for the elderly and so on. But it was a monotonic list, i.e. all these facilities were listed and you had to rank them in comparison to each other. Of course, the library and museum did not rank that high when compared with your child's school or your old granny's quality of life for her final years. Guess what, the jobsworths at the council used these answers to cut funding to the museum and library, including closing them on certain afternoons of the week. They have now realised that they asked the question in the wrong way, as a result of much campaigning from the museum group, but I ask you! Books are what we all need to provide colour and imagination to our lives, not to mention education in the broadest sense of the word. Not everyone lives with an Amazonaholic like me -- libraries should be there to provide everyone with the chance to stretch their mental wings in whatever direction they like, most particularly children.