Turning libraries outside in :)

Today was Carey Principal’s Day (sort of a staff retreat under another name) two experiences have me thinking about how our changing communications technologies are changing libraries.

The ghost of libraries past (photo from 23 dingen voor musea)

The first was driving up for the day. Our “farm” is three hours away, so on the journey I listened to some great radio, from the BBC and ABC. None of the programmes (not even the always stimulating Digital Planet, or the often intriguing All in the Mind) could get me to remember when they are “on” or rearrange my life so as to listen to them. One silent revolution in my life over the last several years has been the quantity of radio I now hear. Almost none of it live. Digital technology, and Internet delivery, enable me to shift time, and ignore geography, and listen to what I like when I like :)

During the day, when our librarian had presented her dream of the Carey library in five year’s time,1 our staff comedian (and resident American) Brian Krum quipped: “So you want the library to imitate Borders ;)” Siong is equally quick: “No I want Borders to imitate us!”

The ghost of libraries to come? (Jan Steen “Argument over a card game”)

Siong is right, libraries (already in part, by five years away so much more) are about breaking down borders. The library of the present/near future is a Library without Borders. Library users no longer need or want the hushed “study space” of yesteryear. Or if they do they are hopeless stick-in-the-muds who enjoy anything “retro”. The information and ideas libraries distribute is increasingly available anywhere anytime. Libraries are becoming places to interact with others about that information and those ideas.

The old, outside-in, library was a place you went to in order to acquire something. They were “study spaces” where ideas were mulled and books composed (as  Karl Marx and hundreds of others did in the British Museum). Coffee shops were places where ideas were discussed and debated.

In our world we need outside-in libraries, places like the coffee shops of old where people meet, linger and talk – or better still argue! Now that’s a revolution that most libraries cannot make, yet. They, almost all, have a massive investment in books, and books take space and human resources to curate and distribute them. It is not only the ancient and massively endowed Bodleian Library that is running out of space, the much humbler Carey library requires staff to assist in “culling” its stock! That inertia means that for some time to come libraries will be both “inside-out” places we come to – increasingly infrequently – to get information and ideas, and also “outside-in” places to go to in order to share those ideas with others, talk and argue.

Many of my readers, I know, are aflicted with codexphilia. I used to be a sufferer. The once scores, then dozens of boxes that accompanied my moves were mute witness to my plight. I still enjoy the look and feel of a well-produced volume – increasingly seldom, for publishers in search of “cost savings” must still compete on price. But I know how I’d spend the budget if I was a librarian, and a coffee machine and some decently comfortable couches would rank higher than more dead trees ;)2

  1. How anyone, especially an information specialist, can think that far ahead amuses me! []
  2. No. You got it wrong! This is not another rant predicting the death of the book, or even the codex. I think, and hope, that codexes will be with us for generations to come, new and beautiful ones as well as those redolent of age. But they are already – and will increasingly be – either works of art, or of antiquarian interest. They will not be tools of my trade. []