It’s a question that comes up more than you might think, actually.
A library is a place where books are kept, seems to be the obvious answer, and it’s clearly true, but there’s something more than that going on.
I noticed it first, sadly, with complaints. I remember once having a member of the public ask me the above question. I could tell from his tone that he was leading for a particular answer, so I diplomatically asked how he’d define it. He was actually complaining that to him, a library was a quiet space, set aside for studying. He was trying to study, and was disturbed by the Baby Boogie session downstairs.
He definitely had a point. Traditionally, libraries have been quiet spaces, and a hundred toddlers and parents singing doesn’t quite fit that image. I apologised for the noise, but politely insisted that libraries tried to help a whole range of different parts of the community, with a whole range of different services. Baby boogie is one of those, as are our study tables.
At Jubilee in particular, a lot of the traditional library rules have been abandoned in order to make a space feel more welcoming to more people. I worry that this turns some people off, but hope they understand that the library wouldn’t be able to provide any services if we aren’t well used.
A library isn’t just a place for books. These days, a library aims to be a centre of the community. Books aren’t the be all and end all. A large percentage of our visitors, for example, never use the books at all, and just come in to use computers. At the same time, even the least book related and non-traditional activities, like Baby Boogie, brings so many parents and toddlers into contact with the library, and the books it offers, that it directly serves the bookish core. If you don’t believe me, talk to a member of staff who has been working on the children’s desk after a Baby Boogie session. If they can catch their breath for a moment, they may be able to tell you just how many books they’ve issued and returned. Very politely, of course.
The other side, of course, is that these days a library isn’t even necessarily a building! Take a look at our Virtual Reference Library, much of which is available from your home. Not to mention eBooks, which manage to fill the core promise of libraries without the use of paper or bricks.
Our library is a place which people and knowledge come together. Which sounds vague, because it has to be. We’re here to provide a service for everybody.
A recent (ex-librarian) enquirer pointed me towards SR Ranganathan’s Five laws of Library Science:
- Books are for use.
- Every reader his [or her] book.
- Every book its reader.
- Save the time of the reader.
- The library is a growing organism.
All of this resonates really strongly with me, and what I think libraries are all about. Of particular note is this attention to ‘every reader’. Ranganathan encourages us to remember that each reader may need a different book. People are individuals with different needs. In the modern library, I think its important to note that books, bound sheafs of paper, are not the only ‘books’.
This sounds a bit absurd, but what I mean is, that in those laws, where ‘book’ has been written, I would like to add in about a hundred other words. Information, entertainment, community, service, song, film, dance, hobby, interest, cake, computer, advice or support.
All those things and many more, are what libraries are about.
I don’t know what a library is, despite working in one almost every day.
But I do know that they’re really quite marvelous.
What do you think?
Alex – Library Officer
Picture of Hove Library taken from the Alt.Fractals blog, by Eric Baird