Libraries have a future, writes David Pearson, but only if they adapt to changing readers.
The Stationers' Company embraces a broad church of trades relating to the world of books and newspapers and includes not only designers, publishers and manufacturers but also librarians. Their world, like everyone else’s, has been transformed in recent decades by the changes of new technology and internet communications. When Kindles are everywhere and printed book sales are falling, when information is freely available via Google and the world is on your iPad, do libraries have a future
The answer is yes, but only if they change and adapt to this new world and focus their energies on what people still want, and that they can do well. There are lots of different kinds of libraries, ranging from the British Library (which still needs to look after the nation’s published output, even if electronic) to local branch libraries, which may do less traffic in lending books but remain valued as community centres, with other services concentrated alongside learning and training opportunities. Universities and colleges still need their teaching to be supported by libraries, though most of them now spend much of their budget on e-journals rather than printed ones, and the librarians are reinventing themselves as experts in brokering digital information.
There’s a lot of debate about where libraries should be going, and some battle lines between traditionalists who say libraries need to stay rooted in books on shelves, and modernisers who see no future there. It’s partly generational – we have older people who would say books are in their blood, alongside youngsters who live online. Before long they will be joined by children who learn to read on something like a Kindle, and who will automatically think of books as something electronic. Library champions who argue from fond memories of their youth spent in libraries, when they had no other way of getting hold of books and information, and who say we must keep those models going today, overlook the way things have changed. So old-style lending libraries do get closed, and the appeals are lost, because the political support is not there. On the other hand, there are numerous examples across the country of brand new libraries being opened, whose revitalised style and image means they can still be hubs of civic pride – Newcastle, and Canada Water in Southwark, are examples, and new libraries are going up in Birmingham and Manchester.
I have oversight of the libraries of the City of London, where we have a mix of lending libraries and specialist reference services, and they have all been transforming themselves to meet the new agendas. One of our branch libraries that had to close for building redevelopment is being recreated as an integral part of a new community centre, to incorporate adult education and leisure facilities. Our City Business Library is concentrating increasingly on being a centre for training and networking for entrepreneurs and small businesses, and Guildhall Library, with its important historic collections, is putting a new emphasis on lectures, events and outreach around London history. It’s by evolving and being nimble that we will stay relevant, a lesson which businesses – and the City of London – have understood for centuries.
David Pearson is Director of Culture, Heritage and Libraries for the City of London Corporation and has previously worked in several major academic and research libraries, including the British Library, the National Art Library and the University of London Library. He has an extensive record of lecturing and publishing and his books include Provenance research in book history (1994), English bookbinding styles (2005) and Books as history (2008). He was President of the Bibliographical Society 2010-12 and is a liveryman of the Stationers’ Company.