When did you last get a buzz out of a visit to the library? Melvil Dewey, who gave us the Dewey Decimal System for cataloguing books, said that ‘
s function is to give the public in the quickest and cheapest way information, inspiration, and recreation’
. But in many library services today all the discussion is about cheapness, with very little thought of inspiration.
A few years ago Sheffield University opened a new library which was intended to inspire. The Information Commons
is an ‘
integrated learning environment’
designed to be flexible enough to accommodate the next half-century’
s advances in technology and learning methods. The university is particularly proud of the name:
‘We chose to use this name because, like “library” it’s rooted in history. And by re-introducing it to the UK we’re signalling the exciting scale and innovation of this new learning environment, with its shared resources providing access to the world´s knowledge.’
|'We're here for the hyperlocal blogging meet up...'|
Up to a point. Dig a little deeper and you find out that the idea of the ‘
is interpreted rather narrowly: even the university’
s alumni have to book a visit in advance, and the library has opted out of the South Yorkshire Access to Libraries for Learning
scheme, which opens the resources of academic institutions to the wider public. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as an Information Enclosure.
But a real Information Commons could do wonders for Sheffield, and other towns and cities desperately seeking to rethink their library services. Closer links between local authorities and academic institutions could help to create much more accessible library services, with electronic information freely available through shared catalogues.
At central libraries in every town centre members of the public should be able to access library stock from academic and specialist institutions in line with local needs, prioritised so that those requiring materials for study or research aren’
At neighbourhood level a more informal mix of local libraries and community-run ‘
(like Leeszaal Rotterdam West
) and learning spaces might operate, drawing on ideas such as the Uni Project
in New York, which turns public spaces into temporary libraries. These local experiments should be connected to the wider library network online and linked with schools and colleges rather than operating in isolation.
The key, as Locality points out in recent research
for Arts Council England, is to ask the strategic questions about the purpose and function of libraries, not just what physical premises and staffing levels can be maintained with a diminishing level of funding. What kind of material or facilities should be made available freely to the public and why?
What might a real information commons, preserving the principles of open public access and social benefit, look like? Just as the market town of Wooler
in Northumberland has brought together the library and tourist information service in a community hub, local information commons around the country could link a range of complementary services and facilities centred on existing library networks.
Many libraries already partner with education services, running classes and facilitating research; this could be expanded to host skill-sharing schemes such as Trade Schools
, where people teach each other skills such as music or languages, or timebanking
, where people exchange their time on the basis that one hour of, say, help with accountancy is worth one hour of help with cleaning or gardening.
More strategically, an information commons could bring together the library and post office network, instead of trying to turn post offices into catch-all general retailers. Post offices are already exploring
ways of providing local government services at branch counters; in Westminster, for example, residents can pay council tax or apply for parking permits at local post offices, while in Sheffield, young adults leaving council care can get support payments at local post offices.
A partnership between libraries and the Post Office could use library premises for postal facilities and council services including payments and information, in a setting that allows visitors to relax and browse while waiting for service at a counter, and which is flexible enough to adapt to new digital services without a major outlay on new or refurbished buildings. Community-based financial services, such as credit unions, could also operate from libraries, which could provide confidential spaces for financial education or debt counselling without the embarrassment of attending an advice centre.
A partnership between library and postal services acknowledges, too, that the local post office has a social as well as a commercial role and that its primary function is to provide a service to the public. As a parliamentary inquiry concluded
in 2009, post offices serve as ‘an instrument of social cohesion’, offering spaces that are shared by the whole community.
As well as providing a viable future for post offices, a local information commons could use libraries as centres for reinventing local media.
While local newspapers are struggling, a plethora of ‘
websites and community news networks has emerged in recent years. Many of these are individual bloggers and citizen journalists, passionate but often untrained and unresourced, doing their best to provide local information.
Few have found it possible to generate meaningful revenue from their activities, and frequently these local blogs vanish after a few years as the volunteers behind them become exhausted or move on. Others, such as Haringey Online
in north London and the Culture Vulture
blog based in Leeds, have become popular and successful. As a study in 2010
showed, when they work well they provide a dimension to local information that did not exist before, and can enable people to feel more involved in their local community and take action to change things – or simply get together to enjoy shared interests with new friends and previously unknown neighbours.
Will Perrin, founder of the King’s Cross Environment
blog and one of the movers and shakers in hyperlocal media, has argued for more co-operative relationships between these emerging information services and the BBC, with its fraying ethos of public service broadcasting and comprehensive coverage.
This could help create a collaborative and mutually supportive news network; relationships could also be developed with local radio, television and newspapers. As Perrin points out
, we have moved from the days when every town had a local newspaper arguing trenchantly for local causes to a lucky-dip arrangement where numerous forms of media operate but none do so effectively:
‘…all forms of media are uneven in the UK – Midfordshire might have a superb BBC operation, Little Albion an excellent hyperlocal, Upper Snoring a wonderful newspaper, Middleham a promising local TV station upcoming and Soggy Bottom a community radio station. But almost nowhere fires on all media cylinders. Hyperlocals, the local BBC, local papers, community radio, local TV all have areas where there is either no or very weak coverage. And in areas where two may co-exist there is huge potential for more, non-exploitative mutual support and sharing of news production.’
t stop the decline and fragmentation of local media, but they could certainly help new media outlets to grow. Making libraries available to citizen journalists and hyperlocal media as a physical space where they can meet, conduct interviews, and share information could help to join up the advantages of online and physical communities and make emerging local media more accessible.
In an era where it is increasingly difficult to extract revenue from news, libraries could become a base for free and open sharing of news and intelligence. Video and recording studios in larger libraries could be made available to the public at low cost, enabling local people to tell their own stories or share creative content.
This combination of open access and adaptable physical space could give high street libraries a key role in democratising and localising a rapidly changing media landscape, using the power of digital technologies for the benefit of the locality.
By putting libraries at the heart of a new information commons, we could keep post offices running, help resurrect local media and keep our town centres alive. Shouldn’
t this be on every town team’