Friday, 29 October 2010

The library – a place to think

Is the 'Physical' Library a Redundant Resource for 21st-century Academics?’ was the question posed at a debate organised by the Times Higher Education Supplement at the British Library on Tuesday evening.

The first speaker – Mary Beard – spoke up for the physicality of the library as a place to smell and caress books as well as fellow readers. She argued that libraries are ‘places in which to recast the way you see the world.’ The great thing about real libraries, she went on, is that they have librarians – with all their eccentricities. She spoke up for knowledge as opposed to ‘nerdish information:’ the last thing academics need, she said, was a ‘totalising completeness.’

She was not, she stressed, a Luddite – she loved technology - but the physical library was a place to think, and not simply a place in which to access information.

In contrast, Clive Bloom spoke up for the democratisation of knowledge brought about by the proliferation of information on the web. Everything is available online, he said: there are thousands of titles at your fingertips. He wasn’t, he claimed, nostalgic for print and his students would take to ebooks, as easily as they had taken to Penguin paperbacks. While Mary Beard is a Cambridge professor of Classics, Clive is a professor of English at Middlesex University and he accused her of upper middle-class elitism.

There were sniggers from both professors when – Martin Lewis – director of library services at the University of Sheffield – spoke of the poor ‘information skills’ of school leavers. He argued that libraries were ‘busy, confident and effective’ and hugely successful in supporting teaching and learning. We are already spending more on digital resources than print, he suggested, but print would remain crucial for decades... and demand for study space is increasing.  The availability of information online was drawing attention to the uniqueness of our special collections – some of which were not even catalogued, let alone digitised. He gave the National Fairground Archive at Sheffield as an example.

In the debate that followed, Mary Beard rightly spoke of the ‘crucial and huge disciplinary divides’ – scientists were using the physical library less (if at all), but this was not the case in the humanities. She vehemently disagreed with Clive Bloom’s claim that ‘the academic monograph was dead’ (by which I think he meant you couldn’t make money from them) and spoke again about the importance of seeing the original publication for contextual data (size and quality of printing for example).

A member of the audience spoke of the difficulty of reading online, especially for research, and Martin Lewis spoke of his frustration that display equipment had failed to keep pace with developments in other areas of IT.

‘The IT industry expects us to do everything through a relatively small window,’ he said.

Too true! Although, perhaps not literally. As I see it the ‘small window’ is rather the cultural predominance of ‘information’ - alluded to by all the panellists in one way or another, although not explicitly explored. Since when did libraries become storehouses of 'information' and librarians 'information professionals?'  Do people read for information and is such a notion relevant in the humanities?  When did critical engagement become 'information literacy'?

This concept of 'information' has been promulgated effectively by the purveyors of computers, but has also been taken up enthusiastically by misguided librarians, keen to appear modern. The amount of information available is always vast, its acquisition always easy and generally, as Clive Bloom said, ‘at one’s fingertips.’ But, what about the view that people should read less more closely and spend longer thinking about and discussing what they have read? ...perhaps, with someone they meet in the stacks... 

Technology does indeed do information better than libraries ever could. However, as I think Mary Beard was suggesting, education should be transformative, not merely informative. It is not the quantity of information available nor the ease at which it can be got that libraries should focus on, but rather the quality of the educational experience offered. If librarians were to recognise this, we could perhaps show the necessity of a greater physical presence rather than a diminishing one.

Other accounts of the discussion are available

Times Higher Education debate - Is the physical library redundant in the 21st century?  [promises a podcast of the event]

Some librarians are pretty weird

Bedding down in the library

Time to shelve the book habit