Library books – an endangered species?

December 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

Should we be putting library books on the endangered species list?

Are they becoming an optional extra in the very places they previously provided with a raison d’etre? 

Councillors in Edinburgh – a UNESCO-designated World City of Literature – recently announced they want to revamp the Scottish Capital’s central library to connect it to a new “literary hotel“, complete with performance and event spaces, cafes, bars and restaurants. But there’s not all that much in the press coverage, as far as I can see, about expanded opportunities for accessing the dusty old ink-and-paper things I always thought libraries were for.

Edinburgh Central Library - back in the day

I’m also pretty sure computers now take up more space in my local library than print.

Brilliant. Great. Not for a second do I want to seem like a moaning book-luddite – 21st-century learning being interactive and multimedia-oriented and collaborative and all that. Only it grates just a little when I visit the local, public bibliotheque and struggle to find a novel penned by an author who was on the Man Booker shortlist only a couple of years ago. 

The grating becomes even more painful when I discover the facility’s already impressive phalanx of desktops seems to have doubled overnight, and is now bristling in a space previously occupied by shelves of dog-eared pulp romance titles (which, as it happens, I was really hoping to dip into…).

Yup – there was silly old me thinking a library – derived from the Anglo-French librarie and Old French librairie (“collection of books”), the Latin librarium (“chest for books”) and liber (“book, paper, parchment”) – would be the best place for finding, well, you know, books…

So while I’m pondering whether borrowing print texts is indeed going the way of the dodo, here’s a short list of cool alternative uses for libraries – big or small – that have nothing, or very little, to do with stocking and lending books…

the Watergate complex, Washington - why did everything look cooler in the 70s?

1) Political  expose? After many years of presenting an airbrushed account of the Watergate scandal – all the work of Richard Nixon’s enemies apparently, with missing sections in the ‘Smoking Gun’ tape due to a “mechanical failure” – the attractively named Yorba Linda presidential library is, according to, setting the record straight with an unflinching, unbiased look at events leading up to and surrounding the bungled burglary that drove Richard Nixon from office. 

A deeply embedded culture of sabotage, dirty tricks and spying is laid bare in the revamped exhibit, which features interactive screens and taped interviews. Library director Timothy Naftali said the exhibit reflects a democracy not afraid to confront “evidence of its own wrongdoing”.  

It would be good if something similar could be done with an equally disgraceful episode in British high politics. In our multimedia age, you could really go to town. For some reason, Tony Blair, David Kelly and WMD spring to mind…

The Occupy Wall Street People's Library

2) Revolutionary meeting point? Libraries, as this slideshow makes clear, are a major element in the Occupy movement, helping to preserve and disseminate ideas underpinning the protests.

Incidentally, the radical potential of libraries can manifest on a much smaller and more local scale, as I found out during the bypass protest in Dalkeith, Scotland, in 2005/6. I still remember visits by eco-activists – who had occupied various sites along the road’s proposed route – to the town’s library. They would use its computers to send and check email, or communicate with family, friends, relatives and, no doubt, other activists. In its own quiet way, the library helped their struggle continue.

3) Real estate opportunity? The Willesden Green Library revamp in London could be funded by giving part of the redevelopment site over to new housing. I know we’re living in times of austerity and radical measures are necessary if public services are to be maintained but swapping ink and paper for bricks and mortar?…

The New York Public Library

4) Spa-aahhh time? The NYPL kicks ass as far as I’m concerned. Not only does it seem to know infinitely more about social media than many traditional news organisations (always enjoy glancing at its  tumblr page), it’ll also teach you how to make your own bath salts, lip balms and shower scrubs – and just about anything else you might want or need that has absolutely nothing, or precious little, to do with borrowing books. Something of a change of tack given everything else I’ve said here but I don’t think this place could get any cooler. Another reason to move to the Big Apple…  

a listening post at the Dok Library Concept Centre, Delft, the Netherlands

5) Design lab? The Dok Library Concept Centre in the Netherlands sells itself as a “better friend than Google” for those who want information on the latest books, CDs and art. With environmental innovations such as these music listening posts, who can argue? My curiosity is also piqued by the fact Dok has extended the library concept to include lending art to company managers who want to improve working environments for their staff. I happen to work for an Edinburgh bank that got rid of its best original art during the credit crunch, apparently in order to claw back as much cash as possible. Now my working day is spent surrounded by bland prints and predictable photos of the Scottish landscape that have an emotionally deflating effect. Perhaps the soon-to-be-souped-up city library could step in with a scheme similar to Dok’s?

It looks like I’m contradicting myself. I started off with a barely concealed moan about how contemporary libraries are neglecting print books. I’m about to end it with a cautious cheer for institutions that have dramatically extended the scope and variety of what you can find in the public library. Is there, as one blogger has suggested, no longer a need for the traditional library – that solid, (mostly) silent, (mainly) solitary place of old – and its shelves and shelves of books? Is the role of today’s libraries more about “guiding” the quest for information and providing an appealing, accessible space for such a search? Is it time to embrace libraries as places where people will meet, interact and – shock, horror – maybe make some noise?

Yes, yes and yes. I don’t want to stand in the way of progress. Just hope the powers-that-be don’t forget completely about the dusty old paperbacks I still hope to find in plentiful supply when I visit my local library.

the dodo


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