When I was a lad, libraries were where you went to lend books for free…

Libraries of the future

Image from ‘The Future of Libraries’: Interview with Thomas Frey

This post is a direct response to a recent contribution to the Cultural Value Initiative blog entitled ‘A view from one of them econocrats: Efficiency and public libraries in England’ and written by economist Doctor Javier Stanziola.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

Dickens, Charles, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, Chapter 1, 1859

There was a time when life seemed simpler, when public services were dull grey and reliably quiet. Our libraries epitomised this sense of safe social security. They were ubiquitous; full of books that were falling apart, impossible to find because they were often misfiled, not a computer in sight, and the silence was deafening. It was a case of ‘seek and ye shall find’ (or not) and that made going to the library, whether local or city central, like an expedition – one where you’d always leave with a sports bag full of brilliant books and a dog eared card stamped to within an inch of its literature-lending life. Intrepid days like this brought me into contact with Blake, Wilde, Huxley, Dostoyevsky, Marx, Jung and many, many more. I often kept the books too long. I got fined but even the penalties were manageable.

Library life has changed. There are now two types of library: run-down local ones, staffed by well-meaning volunteers and open a couple of hours a day; and big, high-tech central ones, where computer space and coffee shop seems more important than books on shelves, where exhibitions and events and workshops attempt to lure ‘new customers’ who presumably aren’t just tempted by the prospect of ‘borrowing’ books for free. Twenty-first library life is remarkably similar to the beginning of Dickens’ seminal ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Austerity is the name of the game. A game of two halves: the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. Little libraries are closing in poor areas, being taken over by the ‘great and the good’ volunteers in well-off places, and being ‘enhanced’ in central mega-libraries where local councils seek to nestle all their literary eggs in one big, fancy glass-fronted basket – ‘learning zones’. In this time of austerity, economics has been crowned a new cultural king - a vestige perhaps more akin to ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. Libraries have a new mission: to maximise profit and efficiency and diversify sources of income. They are apparently privileged because, as Stanziola claims, ‘statutory funding allows local authority libraries to work outside the market’. But what if public libraries and indeed public services in general were not and should not be perceived as being part of ‘the market’? What if this drive for libraries to declare their value and, in so doing become part of ‘the market’, is a drive towards a homogeneous service that attempts to define itself in terms of ‘maximising provision’ and ‘distribution’? Perhaps then libraries are not really about lending books anymore?

These are challenging times for libraries, arts, culture, and indeed every aspect of our lives. We are still struggling to escape the gloom of a deep economic recession. To do so we are told we must make drastic financial savings wherever necessary. Only then might we usher in a shiny new economic future. Doctor Eleonora Belfiore is right to point out that we face ‘awkward questions’. The DCMS and Arts Council England are apparently looking for ‘sensible answers’. Where? In reports by economists. But don’t worry, says Stanziola, we’d be wrong to think 'cultural policy making has been hijacked by economists'. Really? ‘Cultural policy’ in the UK was created by Keynes – an economist – and Arts Council England was created to deliver this policy. Indeed, it may be fair to suggest that every aspect of our lives has been ‘hijacked by economists’. So it is that we pray before the same alter of economics that created our current ‘season of Darkness’ in the hope that economics will breathe forth a new ‘season of Light’.

So, back to libraries. They’re not apparently places where you lend books or read books, they’re places of ‘co-production’. This is where their value lies: in the ‘provision of public services as a participatory process where users play the role of co-producers’. Indeed Stanziola assumes that the ‘social and educational outcomes libraries can produce are unlikely to happen without the active co-production of the intended users’, especially volunteers. Let me be clear, I do not doubt that involving people from all areas of our communities in developing and delivering publicly funded library services is key to ensuring we meet the needs of ‘service users’. I also know that the value of volunteering is immense and can always show positively in terms of economic efficiency – not least because volunteers don’t get paid and therefore offer real savings over staffing costs. I am just a little concerned that the coarse language of economics and its fetishisation of ‘measurement processes… courageous assumptions and disappointing datasets’ IS invading our cultural landscape, ‘remapping’ cultural activity to create a hyperreality so convincing that we all believe that economic data is our culture. Stanziola (living in ‘the epoch of belief’) suggests that ‘this should not stop us from engaging with different measurement techniques to explore the complex dynamics behind cultural provision and use.' I live in ‘the epoch of incredulity’. I understand economics but I don’t believe such over simplistic and reductionist approaches will ever ‘play a key role in ensuring awkward questions about cultural provision could be finally tackled.’

Perhaps we should look for the answers in books, in libraries? Ask people, listen to protests about cuts, and provide adequate funding. Maybe public libraries are last bastions of ‘the best of times’? Places where we found ‘the age of Wisdom’. Let’s not lose them under the economic snow of another cultural ‘winter of despair’.