It seems the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Bethnal House Asylum, to be precise, which was converted into a library in 1921.
I was there last week to speak at No Furniture So Charming, a London Word Festival event billed as ‘a playful battle’. Artists, writers and thinkers were invited to present their personal visions of the future of the library.
Nine of us did. We all had very different ideas; and our differently quirky but all playful presentations reflected this.
Kirsten Campbell, for example, was interested in how important the mobile library is to rural communities. She spoke about her childhood, her librarian hero dad, and imagined future mobile libraries where there was space for community, conversation and coffee alongside books and computers.
Nicky Kirk took an architectural approach, looking at the flow of people through libraries and how to create zoned spaces within a library which allow different types of activity, including architecturally quietened spaces for contemplative reading.
Trenton Oldfield discussed the importance of keeping public, shared space in community ownership and presented a six-point manifesto to do just that, which including breaking the current coalition government.
Rachel Coldicutt explored ways that libraries, by narrowing choice and suggesting alternative routes, are more effective at educating people in their reading than online systems like Amazon, which suggest more of the same.
Taking a stranger tack, Jon Stone and Kirsty Irving created a leftfield oldschool computer game to show how people might interact with libraries.
So each speaker took a different slant, and used an example (with five minutes per person, it’s all you can do) to highlight a different theme. These were very briefly torn apart by the expert panel, Nora Daly (British Library), Charles holland (FAT), Chris Meade (UnLibrary) and Philip Jones (The Bookseller magazine). Author Travis Elborough kept a loose, light hold on proceedings as compere.
But the response from the Old Library Faction in the audience (let’s call them for now The Librarians, though I haven’t checked their credentials) was overwhelmingly negative (which has continued online). Now, it’s not for me to suggest that all librarians lack creative imagination – although my attempts to house an arts festival in Worthing Library led me to exactly that conclusion. But the Old Library Faction in the audience were unable to look beyond the superficial – they were angry at a book being stamped was used to mark the end of each person’s five minutes, for example. And incredibly cross (during the question and answer section, one started shouting) that the people making presentations were all interested in the future of books and not the library profession. There was some indignation that anyone that curated a collection of books could call themselves a librarian; no, you must have qualifications to get the namebadge.
So angry were they at the trivial, that they missed the underlying themes of the evening. Here were people outside the library profession, being passionate in their support for libraries; enough to have taken time to think, write and prepare presentations. The themes were important; recognise that the things libraries do best are around books, find different ways to get communities interested and use library spaces, allow citizens to curate library collections and share knowledge, break down the barriers between the professionals (who’ve got the library system into such a mess) and people who have a Do It Yourself attitude and might just have some interesting solutions.
Did the Old Library Faction think for a moment ‘hey, some people that could help us save libraries – let’s get them involved’?
No. Faced with people who get up and do (everyone on the panel has a record of doing, not talking) the librarians shouted them down, belittled them and obsessed about the unimportant trivia of the presentations. Which might just be why the library system is in such a state of dissolution. The lunatics, ladies and gentlemen, and they’re running the asylum.