Friday, 21 October 2011

Standing up as a proud 'liberal whinger'

Earlier today, I made a rather lengthy response to the delightful article in the Telegraph suggesting that library campaigners were nothing but 'liberal whingers'. I've re-posted it here, with a wee editing, and freely admit it could have been done better. But left it pretty much as I posted it for 'authenticity'.

There have been plenty of other commentators on the issue including:


Many of whom use actual facts and figures to make their point, rather than personal experience. For what it's worth, this is my response as a library user - rather than 'a librarian'.

Wow, where to start with ripping apart this article?

When did you last go to a public library?

I currently have three books out on loan from my local library. Two to collect. But I'm guessing your article isn't actually aimed at people like me, huh?

60 per cent of us don’t go to libraries at all
And 40% DO go to the library. This is service that is provided with very little publicity or marketing. You might see your local college advertised on the side of a bus. When did you last see your library advertised on the side of a bus? I remember reading an article about Yeo Valley yogurt a few years back. They had achieved the second best selling yogurt range - behind Muller - without any marketing, just word of mouth. Few organisations are in that position, and most would be happy for 40% of the population to use the service without forking out on adverts and campaigns.

Libraries are the original word-of-mouth marketing success!
This is a fight by middle-class liberals to keep libraries open not for themselves, but for the less fortunate
So now I'm a middle class liberal?! Ah, if only. I grew up on a council estate. The library was the only place to get the books I loved. I learned about feminism, philosophy, politics, activism, religion, history. It encouraged me to go on to further studies. Certainly non of my other council-estate dwelling friends did. I now have a job - in a library as it happens - but I still live below the breadline. I live in supported housing. I'm fighting for people like me. As it happens, I'm writing this at home from my broadband PC. I only have access as my father bought the PC. How many people are unable to take part in this debate, because they don't have access to this information at home?

Google a subject and you can become ridiculously well-informed ridiculously quickly
Oh, faux pas, Mr McTernan. Did you just use the word 'Google' as a verb? Oh dear. People search. Librarians find. Did anyone ever introduce you to the concept of 'hidden web'? And you ARE aware that not everything is available online, right? As for Google - you really need to learn how to use it properly. May I introduce you to Phil Bradley and Karen Blakeman. Both would be happy, I'm sure to explain the problems of using Google to find quality information. And show you some other resources. It's been a while since you worked in libraries, I do appreciate you might be a bit rusty.

Fast, cheap computing had spread to most homes, and to our whizzy new mobile phones
No, not everyone has access to a 'fast cheap computer' or even broadband. Figures vary, but it's fair to say that 1/4 adults don't have access to Internet. Now look at those who didn't go to Uni, or who are over the age of 60, and that number might increase. It might be accessible to you - you might have a whizzy new smart phone. Have you heard of the concept of the 'digital divide'. The 'haves' and the 'have nots'?

Now, with Abebooks and Alibris, almost all the second-hand bookshops in the world are available to search

Sure they are. I'm signed up to a few services, Greenmetropolis included, where books are a mere £3.75. But the book has to be available at the point where you need it. Not two years later when someone is having a clear-out. Also, the idea of 'cheap' is relative. Imagine you earn £900 a month. Your mortgage is £600. Bills amount to over £150. It costs around £400 a year for me to send my child to school...and you can see that buying a book quickly becomes a luxury. Welcome to my world. Every now and then, I treat myself. About twice a year. I feel lucky. The rest of it - books, magazines, local newspapers, CDs, talking children's books, non-fiction I access from a library. I would be much poorer without it.

Also, my local 'central' library has a business library. Access to legislation, (not available online for free. Although there is - finally - the wonderful legislation.gov.uk there are some huge gaps in its coverage), business and company information (Again, not available online, for free), research services that help local small/medium businesses research the local opportunities and get their business of the ground. It's not just single mothers with kids loafing around in the children's section you know. It's men in suits too. Imagine!

[...] this is the 21st century. Virtually every kid has a desk at home – even if it often has a games console on it.

No, no they don't. Clearly our social circles are a little different. My son has a box room. It just about fits a bed in. I don't have a dinning room either, so there's no dining room table to spread the homework out on. And whilst I do have the odd book floating around, I just can't provide access to the same range of inspiring reading materials, displays, and KNOWLEDGE that our local library staff have.

By the way. My kid doesn't have a games console either. I know. I'm an evil mum.

The crisis in our libraries is not because of the “cuts” – it’s because they are needed less.
Like many commentators on libraries, you fail to realise that libraries are not just about books. They are about access to INFORMATION. They are about communities. They are about culture, and arts, history. They are about providing free-at-the-point-of-access services that are open to all, regardless of who you are and where you come from. Here's some of the things I've done in my library over the past year.

* Found information on my family history

* Tracked down a member of the family who had been cut off by previous generations in the 1970's. Shut the library and lose access to your local archives, census information and other valuable information that isn't available online.

* Found teaching packs and information on sign language, where to learn in person, and books to support my studies

* Asked about services from my local council. The local council website is flipping awful.

* Books for my son - learning to read and gobbling up books fast. Favourite books that we had on repeat loan we eventually went out and bought. They are books we wouldn't have discovered without the library.

* Researched business information using a bloody expensive database.

* Ordered books from beyond my local library on specific issues on managing a disability.

* Helped a family member with managing a new diet following a diagnosis with diabetes by finding information and recipes for a new way of eating.

* Discovered a new reading group for women - made friends, found people with similar difficulties, found a different view point on being a parent, a source of support and information.

* Printed out an application form or six. I have a PC. Ink, paper and printers are all beyond my budget and my employer doesn't look kindly upon me using the work printer.

* Used the computers, got in touch with friends, family and caught up on email. Not owning a computer is a little painful, but now I have one - my employer however blocks access to most of the useful things and I spend a lot of time at work. A hop across to the library at lunchtime means I can keep in contact, get things done, check 'Martins Money Saving Expert' email. Otherwise, my lunchtime would be spent in a soulless office.

* Borrowed books on astronomy, psychology, computer packages, recipe books,
 DIY / home improvement books, disability, politics.

Even you wouldn't buy Tony Blair's book and keep it to read again would you? Really? Not all books need to be bought and kept. And few of us have the space to do so. It's an inefficient and un-resourceful way of doing things. It's uneconomical, and not very eco-friendly. (Darn. Look, I am a liberal after all) Some books can be read, digested and returned. Reference books, favourite novels can all be kept. But many books, once read can be returned for someone else to use.

Just because you are in the 60% of people who don't use the library doesn't mean the service isn't valuable. It just means that you are in the 60% of people who are missing out. Poor you.

One final point. Having a library qualification doesn't make you a spokesperson for the profession. Sticking that at the end of the article doesn't justify your view. You don't appear to have worked in a public library or have a real sense of what they are about. Being professional is about more than a bit of paper. It's about understanding the issues and giving a shit about people other than yourself.

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