What is a library for these days? Well to be honest with you I am not sure. I am even less certain what it should be used for in 10 years time given the tremendous advance in e-media and publications.
Until about 10 years ago it was all so easy. A library existed to give out books to ensure that everyone had access to the written word which they needed for information, pleasure and study. Of course that was not all a good library did. It had sessions to encourage infants and older children to read; it lent out audio books and music; and it provided computers for study or recreational use to all that needed them. The old harsh place of “SShhh” and disapproving looks has long been banished in a city where our libraries gave us Beacon Status when controlled by the Liberal Democrats.
2 years ago when we raised the question of e-books in the Council Chamber we were mocked by Labour. 12 months ago they followed our lead and made 1,000,000 titles available through an e-library system. But there the thinking has stopped. The library closure report which was approved today has made no attempt to look at the current role of a library let alone think ahead to what it might be as the e-revolution rapidly moves forward. Although I don’t know the answer to the question, “What is a library for?” I at least know that it is a question that must be raised.
This is not a side issue. The ability to read for many is a key part of their pleasure. Being able to read leads to life enhancement; a desire to study and to learn and a familiarity with ideas and concepts way outside our own. For many of us it is fun as well. Even the best films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy cannot begin to replicate your own imagination when you read those books.
But the converse is very clearly true. If you cannot read your employment and life skills are limited. Very few jobs do not now require at least minimal skills. No reading really means no future; no reading leads to a lack of confidence. No reading and you have no mental outlet for your imagination.
I look for my model for a new library system to the valuable work being done by the Reader Organisation in Calderstones Park. The name is a giveaway – it encourages people to read. It does it for anyone who wants to advance their reading skills. It does it especially, however, for those who for whatever reason do not have those skills. Perhaps they are ill; perhaps they missed their chances at school; perhaps….. well there all sorts for reasons why people have not got the reading knack and the reading bug. The Reader Organisation then works to set reading into the context of the needs and opportunities of individuals, groups and communities and it does it from a building but goes into the community and institutions to help the process along.
It then uses the reading to move people even further forward. Group work, oral work, drama, oral history, amateur theatricals and all sorts of things. It encourages confidence in reading. It provides a community within which people learn because they want to learn and find they can learn. That community is supportive and reactive to individual needs within the context of a friendly learning environment.
So what should Liverpool do next?
Firstly it should throw away the report it agreed today.
Secondly it needs to engage with the people of Liverpool on their long-term ambitions for how they can interact with the written word and receive help for achieving those ambitions.
Thirdly it needs to look at every place and body which it funds or otherwise exist to support two types of activity
• Basic skills particularly in the field of labour market intervention
• Arts culture and community
Fourthly it should look at Libraries and other reading based mechanisms provided by other bodies such as the Reader Organisation, schools, colleges and universities.
It should then set out a long-term strategy for the city which brings the answers to these questions together into one coherent whole.
You see we actually spend a lot of money on reading in the city but do not have a system which joins these disparate activities into a coherent whole. We know the City Council has to save money – we are all aware of the problems that it faces. But the answer to their problems is not savage cuts but logical creation of new partnerships to enhance the vital work being done throughout the City to help and encourage people to read for education; work and pleasure.