What is a library?

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


About Alex

Digital comms officer
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6 Responses to What is a library?

  1. Annie Cannan Library Officer/Driver of B&H's mobile library says:

    I enjoyed reading Alex’s comments and it started me thinking about the kinds of things that libraries can provide that cannot be so easily measured. Things like a warm, safe place to sit for free, or a chat with a friendly council official who has known you perhaps many years. There is a book that amongst the more acknowledged benefits our libraries provide, illustrates this phenomena beautifully (as well as being an enjoyable read). It is The Library Book and is available in all our B&H libraries. It is a series of articles from famous authors and some celebrities who share their heartfelt love of this wonderful service and express their gratitude for its existence, and hope that it may continue to inspire others.

  2. Cathy says:

    Whitehawk Library 11 55 on 2 August. This place is bedlam. I can’t hear myself think. I came in here to use the internet and the place is full of screaming children and mothers who seem to think they have no obligation to do anything about it. This isn’t what a library is about, questions of inclusiveness and so on accepted. These selfish library users are making it impossible for other users to use the library effectively. Staff appear to think that inclusiveness means not doing anything about poor behaviour in the library. This is awful. If quiet doesn’t resume soon I will be forced to give up and go home. So much for including me!

    • Alex says:

      Here’s a response from Wendy Barrett, Manager of Whitehawk library (this has also been e-mailed out):

      Dear Cathy,

      Your comments re the noise level in Whitehawk Library on 02/08/12 have been passed to me.

      I am sorry you found the noise level unacceptable.

      I understand a member of staff explained that 2 groups of disabled children as well as a local nursery dropped in at the same time, also due to school holidays the library was exceedingly busy that day. Term time visits are often pre arranged but as libraries are public buildings groups can visit at any time.

      Staff try to create a welcoming environment for all but do need to be mindful of inclusion. At times when the library is busy and staff dealing with users at the counter they are not always aware of the impact of noise or behaviour in other areas of the library. However once aware or advised of problems will do their best to address them.

      Parents or carers visiting the library with their children are encouraged be mindful of other users as children can get excited.

      The Library Service does work in partnership with Triple P (Positive Parenting Programme) as well as Brighton and Hove Parent’s Forum to help promote positive parenting to users.

      I hope your next visit will be more peaceful, do not hesitate to speak to staff if there is a problem.


      Wendy Barrett

      Community Libraries Manager

      Brighton & Hove Libraries

      City Services

      Brighton & Hove City Council

      tel 01273 296906 Voicemail

      mob 07827 880689

      Coldean, Equal Access, Mobile, Patcham, Whitehawk.

  3. Alex says:

    Sorry to hear that Cathy. I think part of the point I was aiming to make in the article was that its really hard to keep the balancing act between the need for quiet space and the need for acitivities for families and children (and everything else). It does sound like the balance wasn’t right there at the time.

    I’ve passed on your comments to a library manager with responsibility for Whitehawk, who should be able to give a more full response.

    Thanks for taking the time to get in contact, and apologies for not meeting your needs.

  4. Pingback: What was a library? – Reflections from Cumbria | Brighton & Hove Libraries Blog

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