Last week the author of the Horrible History series, Terry Deary, copped a lot of flak for saying that libraries have been around too long and are no longer relevant. The general consensus of opinion was that Mr Deary is a money-hungry male appendage, but there was one part of his message that is undeniably true; the world has changed, and dramatically so, since libraries were first conceived.
Deary says that “this is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that.” That’s not the only thing that’s different now; the Internet has largely rendered the need for reference books obsolete, and of course there is the proliferation of ebooks to muddy the waters for readers, publishers, authors and libraries alike (do not get me started on comparing and contrasting ebooks and paperbacks when it comes to copyright, digital rights, lending rights…mainly because it hurts my head just to think about it).
That doesn’t mean that we need to close library doors, fire all the librarians and sell off all the books. (It’s possible that the profession of librarian may go the way of the blacksmith and the coach maker, although I imagine it will be more akin to the farrier’s trade; there will still be a need for a few of them, but nowhere near as many as before.) I spoke with a local librarian last year who wryly noted that if it wasn’t for their free computer and Internet access, the place would be empty. So it’s not just about literature. There is and will probably always be a need for compassionate and progressive societies to provide free access to information, particularly for those citizens who cannot afford their own computers and/or internet connection.
Our municipal council administers three libraries plus a mobile lending service. Activities and services provided at these libraries have included a toy library, computer lessons, feng shui demonstrations, Meet Local Authors sessions, a chess club, preschool story time, a regular computer gaming/social club for teenagers and a visit from a mobile reptile zoo. A recent news article reported that a Scottish library attracted record numbers to their annual Love Your Library Day by hosting pole dancing classes. When I first read this, my initial reaction was, “What the…?!?” but upon further reflection, I realized that they have the right idea. Deary says that “we have to look at what place [libraries] have in the 21st century”. And that place is right at the centre of local communities, where they can provide much-needed services, function as social and cultural hubs, and maybe even (God forbid!) entertain people. Libraries need no longer be solely, or even mainly, about books.
The same library that gave lessons in pole dancing invited visitors to play “booky table tennis”, using old books for paddles and nets. I wonder if any of the books used were Horrible Histories…