On Friday I put up a piece on the Guardian’s Comment is Free about the hideous philistinism of Andy Burnham, the minister for “Culture, Media and Sport” who wants to turn libraries into community centres, with coffee bars, music, mobile phones, and so on. It got a lot of comments cheering it on on general principle, and one or two from librarians saying that Burnham wasn’t proposing anything new, but merely driving on what is already happening. The saddest of these came from a commentator signing herself Mswoman. Here is an excerpt.

The city centre library where I’ve worked for the last 5 or so years already allows mobile phones, hot drinks, snacks, and all the other philistine anti-learning activities that Andrew Brown references in this piece. Staff are not allowed to ask customers to keep the noise down, and they’re not allowed to eject people from the premises except in very exceptional circumstances (and by that I mean you’d practically have to start a riot before any of us would be allowed to do anything about your anti-social behaviour). Oh yes, and we play dvds all day long on a large plasma screen near the library entrance, with the sound on, to help advertise our dvd collection…..and to keep the kids entertained.

The library was deliberately designed and built with no specific quiet/study area, and there is no separate reference section – all the reference books are inter-shelved with the lending stock. Having a quiet area and/or a reference section was deemed to be too elitist and contrary to the ethos of inclusiveness the authority wanted to promote.

However, and this is the bit that will annoy everyone here. The library is a huge success. It’s the busiest library in the country, and while other libraries are experiencing falling visitor numbers and falling loans, our figures have been going up year on year. I suspect we’ve set the standard, and other authorities, along with Andy Burnham, are looking at ways to replicate that success across the board. Sorry about that folks!

Predictably my authority plays down the downside of all this, and only boasts of their successes, so you don’t get to hear about the hordes of teenagers making everyone’s lives, both staff and customers alike, a complete misery, or the fact that, having decided uniformed staff were intimidating and not the image the library wanted to present to the world, and thus redeploying our security staff to other roles, the authority has now been forced to employ the services of a private security company to keep staff and customers safe on Saturdays and during the evenings, as well as debt collectors to chase down missing stock and unpaid fines.

You don’t get to hear about the punch ups, the anti-social behaviour, the ever-present handbag thieves, the customer who didn’t want to give up his computer when he needed the loo and who resorted to peeing into an empty coffee cup while he remained seated at his desk, the couple I caught engaged in oral sex in the children’s toilets, the pensioner who kicked a 2 year old who was lying on the floor having a tantrum, and who was banned for 6 months but not reported to the police for assault, or any of the other incidents that occur on an almost daily basis. Or of the staff who are too intimidated to speak out, and who are so worn down from being told it’s all their own fault ‘cos they just don’t understand young people and they need to learn to be more tolerant, that they can’t be bothered trying to do anything about these things anymore.

I would almost rather have libraries censored by Sarah Palin if they were orderly. I suspect that kind of reasoning will increase as the slump takes hold. There is a reason for the popularity of authoritarianism at some times, and it is not just the personality defects of authoritarians.

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2 Responses to Heartbreaking

  1. Louise says:

    Yes, the key to it is the figures – they can be measured and parsed into meeting government ‘targets’. What can’t be measured and quantified is the quality – whether people are learning things, whether things are available to them that they cant easily get anywhere else, what your chances are of doing anything more demanding than reading Harry Potter there. I could tell you a similar story of a radio station that shall-not-be-named, it was deliberately taken down-market. The magic listener figures went up, so it was pronounced a great success despite the fact that the content had suffered and one more unique publicly-funded outlet where people could once enlighten themselves a bit about the world began to be choked with pap you could get almost anywhere. And of course, what it does, as you rightly pointed out in the article is to disenfranchise people who don’t have the expensive opportunities to get their culture and learning elsewhere. This is a large part of I why I wont vote Labour. They’ve been a disaster worse than the old Tories. I’ve seen more cultural vandalism in the name of ‘accessibility’ and ‘inclusiveness’ than I ever saw from the old ‘market forces’ brigade.

  2. Robert says:

    Even libraries that have not been turned into conference centres show an appalling decline in standards. I wanted to get vol 4 of the [New] Cambridge Modern History from my local library. According to the catalogue it was available on the shelf, but the volume has gone missing. So I filled in a card for it, only to receive a card some weeks later saying that it was impossible to obtain this book for me. I could go to the borough’s central library in Hendon (pretty well an hour’s bus ride from Barnet, where I live) and read the copy in the reference section there, or I could traipse to the British Library and read their copy there. But even though there seems to be a copy available in the BL lending section in Yorkshire library officialdom so far says I can’t have it to read in my own home; and there must be copies available in all the other public libraries that haven’t yet sold off their stocks of core literature.
    My local library is one that in 1955/56 had on its open shelves all ten volumes of Toynbee’s A Study of History (nine of the ten have since gone missing, I learned earlier this year) and that in 1962 was able to obtain for me the Latin text of Augustine’s commentary on the psalms: those were the days when I was trying to improve my knowledge of the early Church and could still read ecclesiastical Latin with some fluency.
    My suspicion is that for cost reasons the library is cutting back on inter-library loans, but a sympathetic librarian has come to my aid and is trying to find a way through the log-jam. He is as baffled as I am.

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