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New Romanticism and Libraries

Change.

For better or worse, it’s a topic that’s constantly being discussed and debated in the library world. There are a lot of opinions about the future of libraries [1] [2], ranging from the utopian (free digital content for everyone) to dystopian (libraries are dying). The more optimistic of us tend to take the utopian view; doing our best to make it a reality, while working with and around copyright restrictions, publishers and content providers.

The problem I’ve seen recently, however, is that while most libraries are trying to create this new world view and keep up with our clients’ growing needs and wants; there is an undercurrent that is fighting against us, and it’s coming from within our communities.

Ooh to Be Ah

We’ve seen this fight before, it’s nothing new [3]; the classic, romantic view of libraries being these quiet, magical forests of books and dust, clashing against the cold digital future. By working to improve our services and bring libraries into the current century; every day is a fight against the stereotypical libraries found in pop culture and people’s memories. There are those of us who rage against the machine, attempting to change people’s view with the whole ‘we have things other than books, come use us!’ and the ones who question ‘why do we need all these print editions when we have digital collections?’ This can be difficult when those we have to convince to change are working in our libraries.

Have you met or worked with someone who wanted a career change and thought libraries would be an ‘easier’ or ‘quiet’ choice as they moved into retirement? Thankfully they are becoming less frequent, with librarianship courses clearing up these misconceptions early on. There are, however, still plenty of librarians out there with this view (there are also those who remind us that people with a static and dated view of our profession will soon be dead [4]). This romantic view of what libraries were and what they should be can be detrimental to our services and our profession.

Electric Dreams

The trend that has me most concerned, and the reason for this post, isn’t coming from within the system, but instead from external potential users. It is members of our communities, who are not necessarily library users (which is the problem), pushing an old-world, romantic view of what they believe libraries should be. I’m calling this new wave romanticism for libraries. Just like the music movement of the early ‘80s, this group can be seen as a reaction to the ‘punk’ (digital) trends of today’s libraries. Most notably, we can clearly see this trend in the recent uproar around the Mitchell Library in NSW [5]. In this case the community is protesting against alterations to the library’s layout which change the studious nature of the Mitchell reading room. It is part of an effort to encourage more usage by other clients. The main point of contention, that I can see, is moving the books that line the Mitchell reading room into a secure area, allowing clients to bring food and drink into the space.

“But we have a right, as potential users of the library and as citizens concerned with our shared culture, and with the Mitchell as one of its most valuable and loved national institutions, to have our questions answered, and in public.”

The above quote comes from the Save Mitchell Library petition which is in response to changes happening to the Mitchell reading room [6]. I’m not going to rehash the debate, or argue for, or against the changes. What I am interested in exploring here is the particular wording of this petition and the comments made in response to the changes.

The phrase “…As potential users of the library…” stands out for me in particular. Here is a group of scholars and authors who don’t necessarily use the Reading Room, but who are happy to state that they are opposed to the proposed changes to it. This is not to say that they won’t use it in the future or haven’t used it in the past, but odds are they aren’t in there all day, every day researching. They have a romanticised view of what a library should be, that flies directly in the face of all the attempts by library professionals to make libraries relevant in the 21st century. These views are a step backwards.

A number of the comments on the petition rely on romanticised versions of the library, saying things like, “I can only get walls of books in a library!” [# 9,503] and “The historical books and their ambience can never be replaced.” [# 9,533] There are also a number of people who are confused about what these changes mean; one in particular said “please don’t make it hard for all people to access” [# 9,460] and several state that the move will ‘dumb down Australia’. While I can see why some people might react like this and see it as ‘destroying history’, or as pandering to those ‘pesky backpackers’; the opinions expressed are largely uninformed. There is a large an ongoing digitisation project that will ensure the preservation of the Mitchell collection and allow greater access. From a practical point of view, digitising and putting rare items in controlled climate rooms (or ASRSs) is a great way to preserve our history and make it available for everyone.

Libraries are traditionally for the have-nots [7], they provide free information to the communities they serve. Today, we see that the best way to provide this information to everyone is digitally. Services like Trove allow anyone (anywhere) to access long forgotten newspapers from the comfort of their home or library, for free. Coming from a public library point of view, the majority of our clients either use their own devices or public computers to access information; the rest use the space to sleep or work collaboratively. We’re also seeing a demand for more usable public space in libraries and those who provide it see a greater increase in usage [8]. So if the public need is for a space to plug in and work or learn, then why are the likes of Susan Wyndham [9] and Evelyn Juers [10] arguing against it?

Love Action (I Believe in State Libraries)

While writing this post I realised the questions behind the Mitchell Library petition raised a larger idea: what should a modern state library look like? Referring to the mission statement of the State Library of NSW [11] we see that its core mission is to strengthen the community by providing quality information and preserving Australian heritage. The State Library of WA (my home state) has a similar mission [12] to enrich the lives of West Australians by enabling access to information and preserving our heritage for future generations. How do these statements translate to the real world though?

Are state libraries simply larger versions of public libraries? Focusing on subject specific information, providing large areas for self-learning and serving as archives for researchers. Do they serve as a ‘mother-ship’ for public libraries? Coordinating activities and resources, using the smaller libraries to provide outreach to the wider community. Are they beacons of heritage where you can view over 1000 copies of *Don Quixote *and rare materials found nowhere else? From what I’ve seen the answer is yes and more, but is it a case of trying to cater to too many interest groups? Should our state libraries pull back and focus on providing pure research and archive services, leaving public libraries to provide workspaces and recreational services to the community?

From the suggestions coming out of the Mitchell Library petition that seems to be partly what people want. The vision of a state library, according to the petition, resembles more a static museum of books than an active library. State libraries would be places you could take children to see walls of print, experience that delightful smell of books decaying [13] and remember the good old days.

Personally I’m unsure about what a state library should look like. Yes, we need our heritage collected and made accessible for researchers (and the like) to create new works; but, I also feel that this information needs to be accessible to the general public too. State Libraries should provide cultural engagement by curating exhibitions, outreach and even collecting stories from the community [14]. These are all ways our state libraries contribute to the communities they serve. I’m personally in favour of more creative spaces being provided; like the State Library of Queensland’s The Edge initiative which actively encourages people to learn and create. Enriching the community is a difficult but worthwhile task for our state libraries; it is made more challenging by the diverse needs, opinions and views of the communities they belong to.

Ch-Ch-Changes

As our lives become more digitally focused, are we seeing a backlash against it by those who are holding on to old-world views and seeking the stability of familiarity? This would certainly explain our new wave romantics arguing against the changes to the last bastion of the non-digital world: traditional libraries [15]. This fear is not unfamiliar, we can see it in our own industry when staff ignore digital collections or choose not to engage with social media and new technologies.

The question is will these new romantics have their way? Will they stop libraries from moving forward to meet the demands of the future? Meanwhile they will sit at home, happy in the knowledge that at least libraries will never change; they’ll always have paper books and quiet reading rooms for them to go to (should they ever choose to).

I know what would happen if, to bring back that old-school library feel, I suddenly removed all the power points, study desks and free internet from my public library. It would not be good for library patronage or for my current users.

One of the largest problems for libraries is reaching non-user groups and making them users. But when our non-users only want a static image of a library, so that they can feel nostalgic, is it worth catering to them? Especially at the cost of the underprivileged, the have-nots and, you know, our actual users?

Banner photo:New Romantic photo shoot by alice_bag / used under CC BY */ cropped from original.

A writer with weird ideas and a polytheism fixation. My alter ego lives in the library, soaking up tech and designing pretty things.

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