Storing Ideas?

Posted by Edward Willatt on Tuesday, September 22, 2009 Under: Libraries

When considering the current debate over the role of public libraries one is constantly aware of the danger of being a reactionary.  I hear debates on Radio 4 where one side talks about the need for equality and for more inclusive libraries that are less stuffy and provide room for ‘coffee and conversation’.  On the other side the ‘traditionalist’ comes across as out of date or elitist in their concern with silence, musty smells and ambience.  The point is made that people don’t really need silence to read.  People read on the tube don’t they?  However, I think that the modernisers always assume that the library user, the 'consumer', is simply someone with leisure time to fill.  They never seem to include those studying for exams or carrying out in depth study into complex subjects and texts that demand concentration.  Someone might be able to read a magazine or a light novel on the train but not a complex work in a complex subject.  People vary in any case.  Some are easily distracted and some are not distracted by anything.  There does seem to be so many assumptions at work when libraries are presented as leisure spaces or re-named ‘Ideas Stores’.  This assumes that people are only ever shopping for ideas in a library.  It assumes that anyone looking for a library is seeking to find an idea which is useful either to their private or public life: careers ideas, design ideas, exercise ideas, ideas for past times…  This is apparently all we do.  What if we are seeking a method, a method of connecting ideas?  What if we are not idea users but form or develop or relate ideas?  What if we want to use our understanding and imagination, something which can require great concentration and which is threatened by distractions??

 

The aim of promoting equality is also used and sometimes gives rise to the strange notion that libraries are for everyone including ‘mobile phone users’.  This seems to categorise people who want to use a mobile phone everywhere as somehow inseparable from this gadget, just as people are arguably inseparable from aspects of their culture or physical appearance.  To be inclusive, some argue, we must allow the noise made by phones.  Yet by doing this we do not allow space for work that demands peace and quiet.  There is a conflict between the different activities rather than equality or a space in which everyone is included.  The real or potential role of quiet study in people’s lives is challenged.  This becomes excluded by the organisation of this social space when it is a possibility for any library user (even ones who are habituated to their mobile phones).  ‘Coffee and conversation’ seems very inclusive but it is really just as exclusive as Jürgen Habermas’ universal community of the coffee house.  I wouldn’t want libraries with nothing but books and silent reading but I would always want plenty of quiet space as well as separate rooms where coffee can be drunk and conversation can flow.  The danger is when we assume that people never want a quiet space, that they only want to shop for ideas and never go any deeper.    

In : Libraries 



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Storing Ideas?

Posted by Edward Willatt on Tuesday, September 22, 2009 Under: Libraries

When considering the current debate over the role of public libraries one is constantly aware of the danger of being a reactionary.  I hear debates on Radio 4 where one side talks about the need for equality and for more inclusive libraries that are less stuffy and provide room for ‘coffee and conversation’.  On the other side the ‘traditionalist’ comes across as out of date or elitist in their concern with silence, musty smells and ambience.  The point is made that people don’t really need silence to read.  People read on the tube don’t they?  However, I think that the modernisers always assume that the library user, the 'consumer', is simply someone with leisure time to fill.  They never seem to include those studying for exams or carrying out in depth study into complex subjects and texts that demand concentration.  Someone might be able to read a magazine or a light novel on the train but not a complex work in a complex subject.  People vary in any case.  Some are easily distracted and some are not distracted by anything.  There does seem to be so many assumptions at work when libraries are presented as leisure spaces or re-named ‘Ideas Stores’.  This assumes that people are only ever shopping for ideas in a library.  It assumes that anyone looking for a library is seeking to find an idea which is useful either to their private or public life: careers ideas, design ideas, exercise ideas, ideas for past times…  This is apparently all we do.  What if we are seeking a method, a method of connecting ideas?  What if we are not idea users but form or develop or relate ideas?  What if we want to use our understanding and imagination, something which can require great concentration and which is threatened by distractions??

 

The aim of promoting equality is also used and sometimes gives rise to the strange notion that libraries are for everyone including ‘mobile phone users’.  This seems to categorise people who want to use a mobile phone everywhere as somehow inseparable from this gadget, just as people are arguably inseparable from aspects of their culture or physical appearance.  To be inclusive, some argue, we must allow the noise made by phones.  Yet by doing this we do not allow space for work that demands peace and quiet.  There is a conflict between the different activities rather than equality or a space in which everyone is included.  The real or potential role of quiet study in people’s lives is challenged.  This becomes excluded by the organisation of this social space when it is a possibility for any library user (even ones who are habituated to their mobile phones).  ‘Coffee and conversation’ seems very inclusive but it is really just as exclusive as Jürgen Habermas’ universal community of the coffee house.  I wouldn’t want libraries with nothing but books and silent reading but I would always want plenty of quiet space as well as separate rooms where coffee can be drunk and conversation can flow.  The danger is when we assume that people never want a quiet space, that they only want to shop for ideas and never go any deeper.    

In : Libraries 



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