Today is National Libraries Day. In Bristol, my local city library is organising speakers, musicians and installations to celebrate the day. But after years of funding cuts, closures and declining usage due to the rise of the internet, what is the future of the library? - does it even have one?
I would answer a most emphatic yes, it most definitely does: but some things need to change. Based on responses from over 2,000 people, a 2013 research report from the Arts Council England found that public libraries are seen as "trusted spaces, open to all, in which people continue to explore and share the joys of reading, information, knowledge and culture". In an increasingly digital world such a physical space seems worth preserving, yet between 2007 and 2012 the number of visits to public libraries dropped by nearly 7% . However, while we might not visit libraries as often as we used to, the thought that they might no longer exist seems impossible - with communities protesting nationwide as council after council announces new closures or cuts in response to increasingly tight budgets.
But what if this isn't the end for the public library? What if all it needs is a bit of re-imagining? Here's my starter for ten....
10 ideas to reinvent the library
- Embrace the digital: Libraries currently pivot around an outdated model of lending physical books in a world where digital access offers unrivalled convenience. 'E-loans' and digitised archive content needs to move from a periphery experiment to a core service.
- Community hubs: As a network of open, secular public spaces, libraries are unrivalled in their presence in our communities. Their crucial role as community hubs, hosting local events and offering space for local groups to meet, should be massively expanded.
- Maker spaces: A new social innovation revolution, makerspaces, hackspaces and 3D printing labs are re-imagining what's possible for budding artists, designers, inventors and entrepreneurs. They should be core elements of our future libraries.
- Information curation: We live in a world of instant-access information overload. Any question we could ever want to ask can be typed into a search engine. What we increasingly need, and what libraries could offer, are services which filter and tailor information to our needs.
- Crowdfunded ownership: Where libraries face closure local communities could consider seeking a private benevolent buyer, or even buying the space themselves through charity grants, local campaigns and crowdfunded contributions.
- The Bibliotherapy Surgery: Embracing the act of reading as a form of therapy, bibliotherapy matches people up with literary resources to help them solve a problem. Links with doctors surgeries could mean bibliotherapy is offered as an alternative 'social prescribing' service.
- Gaming hubs: By embracing gaming technology and offering gaming spaces, libraries can offer exciting learning and socialisation opportunities, particularly to young adults: encouraging them to feel ownership of the library as a public space.
- Repair cafes: At their core libraries are about information and knowledge sharing. So what better way to expand their service offering than by hosting regular or even permanent repair cafes where local people can share skills?
- Innovation incubators: Any knowledge economy such as ours hinges around a constant output of innovative thinking and ideas. The library offers the perfect combination of culture, physical space and resources to act as local innovation incubators.
- Hybrid spaces: Forget the library as a book lender: imagine instead an exciting hybrid space where books sit side by side with cinema screens, exercise spaces, knitting classes, cafes and conference facilities.
Re-imagining the future
By embracing the digital trends which threaten to undermine its existence, libraries can reinvent themselves as exciting and inclusive spaces which serve the whole community. Of equal importance, by adapting their offer and service model libraries can also massively increase monetisation opportunities and so help secure their future, free from the threat of closure. In an increasingly challenging public financing climate, independent sources of revenue will prove crucial to the survival of any public service which could be deemed non-essential.
The trouble is, I think most of us would argue that the library is an essential public service. It just needs a bit of re-imagining....