According to the 2010/11 Taking Part survey published by the Dept of Culture, Media & Sport the proportion of adults in the UK who visited a public library in the past year fell from 48.2% in 2005/6 to just 39.4% in 2009/10. At that rate of decline in less than two decades nobody will be visiting libraries.
This upsets me. I remember weekly childhood visits to my local library, gathering up another small pile of books to take home. Those visits were full of anticipation. I can remember the almost overwhelming sense of wonder when I first walked into the Library at the sheer number and diversity of books in one place. But in the face of our modern day almost universal access to knowledge and information through digital means, libraries are slowly becoming irrelevant.
In response to Kodak filing for bankruptcy protection, I saw a tweet that opined that the company's long-term decline had come as a result of misunderstanding their core business: "They were in the memories business not the film business". In his Observer column on the subject, John Naughton paraphrased Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma, saying that whilst big companies are often good at fostering 'sustaining' innovations (the type that enhance their positions in established markets) they are (perhaps inevitably) much less adept at dealing with innovations that completely disrupt markets. To me, libraries have a Kodak problem - they are shackled to a legacy medium and model (books and lending) from which (despite efforts to diversify) they seem unable to escape.
And yet I believe there is an extremely useful long-term role that libraries could still play in local communities. The first thought most of us have when we think about libraries is that they are places to go to to borrow books. Yet if I think back to those visits to my local library the thing I was really excited about was the opportunity to connect to amazing stories and how those stories made me feel. Borrowing books was merely the means by which this happened.
The art of storytelling is one of the greatest of human attributes. So what if community libraries became places that were dedicated to that art? Places where people could connect and interact with stories in a hundred different ways. Story centres, if you like. Places that were about inspiration and firing the imagination. Places that were equipped not only with books, eBooks, and DVDs that you might borrow, but with the tools for digital creation and the means to inspire and enable people to create stories of their own. Places that were not just about quiet, passive appreciation but active, noisy, exciting learning. Places that might connect the young to the great stories inherent in film, literature, and history in meaningful and relevant ways. Places that involve people with the stories of their local area and the people who can tell them, and maybe even lived through them. Places where people could go to celebrate great storytellers and hear them speak. Authors, film-makers, game-makers, artists, animators, illustrators. Or to be a part of a massive but very tangible story-telling network spread out around the world.
There are plenty of reasons why this might be a good idea. Some have said that storytelling is dying art, and yet the diversity and depth of the tools we have at our disposal to create stories has never been richer. The creative industries in the UK employ around 1.5 million people and their contribution to the economy is growing. Think of the ground-up innovation this could galvanise. Think of all the stories that could be brought to life that would otherwise be forgotten. Think of all that might come from people inspired not just by reading, but by doing and making. But this is also about reconnecting people to their local communities. How great it could be. Re-invigorating a national infrastructure that has enormous potential to bring even more value to millions of people. Capitalising on the amazing things that can happen when you bring people and technology together and add a dash of inspiration.
So that's what I'd do. Turn every library into a story centre. I don't think we should accept a slow gradual decline for our libraries into irrelevance. I have some sympathy for the long-suffering librarian attempting to deal with increasing expectation and dwindling resource. But instead of disenfranchising them, we should empower them. There are no doubt plenty of reasons one can think of for not doing this. But I think there's one very compelling reason for believing that there needs to be radical change - in less than a generation community libraries may well not exist.
HT to Diemkay for the DCMS link