'The last thing I’ll say today begins with a recollection of my time as a library assistant – a pretty lowly form of life – in Charing Cross Road library, part of Westminster city libraries, in the early seventies. I’m a romantic. I’m easily swayed by my imagination. And one of the things that used to thrill me was the sense of a great network reaching out from library to library, embodied in the inter-library loan system connecting my branch with the other Westminster branches, St John’s Wood, Marylebone Road, Buckingham Palace Road, Drury Lane, and so on, and from there out to the other London boroughs, and from there out across the whole country. If someone wanted a book that we didn’t have, we could get it. No-one expected every branch to hold every book in the world. It was the connectedness, the joined-upness, that meant that it didn’t matter if your local branch was a great central one or a small suburban one, or a rural one, because you were part of the great system. Out of curiosity I used to collect the compliments slips that came with the books our readers requested, and I’ve still got them.' [And at this point Philip read out a series of these to illustrate the diversity of the libraries who had supplied material to his readers]
Philip Pullman, Library Campaign Conference, 22 October 2011 (Full text at Voices for the Library)
After exhorting everyone to blog about the Library Campaign conference, I'm of course one of the last to do so, and a lot of what I would have written has already been said. So, apart from urging people to support the march planned for February 2012, and say what a wonderful day it was, and how impressive the speakers were, especially those from campaigns in the front-line, I want to talk about one point from Philip Pullman's speech, the paragraph I quote above. I had a very similar experience. Beginning my career in 1978, not so long after his, in a small branch library in north London, I too was thrilled, less by the stock in that branch (the branch librarian had some rather old-fashioned views on stock-selection and, while we held multiple copies of more or less everything Jean Plaidy had written, there were not many texts there that excited me), but by the potential of the network, by the fact that, albeit for a small fee, we could find them a copy of more or less anything.
I felt that same thrill when, in the early 1990s, libraries began to use the internet, first with primitive tools like telnet, gopher, WAIS and then with the web. This opened up new possibilities for connectedness and joined-upness that seemed to us revolutionary. They are still, for all the paywalls and barriers to information that capitalism in decline tries to impose.
I know, as an active user of several public library services, that few seem to feel the same thrill nowadays. Perhaps it's the effect of the dismantling, under the impact of previous rounds of local government cuts, of the great regional inter-lending networks such as LASER, which turned itself into a think-tank before disappearing from history, but too many library staff seem to see requests for material not held by their system as eccentric and unreasonable; that's certainly the feeling I get when I request material from outside the system. How many public library catalogues allow users to place a request online for something not held? In my experience, none.
This is an important point, not simply because I read out-of-the-way books and want to get them through the public library service, but because, in the privatisation workshop I led, the chief threat we identified in the government-inspired trends to privatisation, outsourcing and volunteer-run so-called 'community' libraries† is that they will use the anarchy of the marketplace to break up a cooperative and collaborative system.
How should public libraries respond?
- Make requests free
- Make everyone's holdings discoverable through a single interface
- Make materials commercially available but not yet acquired equally discoverable
Neither of these would cost a great deal of money; the benefits they would bring to our social, cultural and economic life are incalculable.
Alongside that, everyone who cares about libraries must join the war on stupidity, support next February's march, and join or start local campaign groups.. The conference identified that campaigns need to talk to one another. It was clear from Jeremy Hunt's lamentable appearance before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee that the enemy is organised. So must we be.
† We've always had community libraries, actually, and it's a prostitution of the name to apply to it to unmanaged collections of books provided by Big Society groupies