Sunday, October 12

Should libraries abandon rules of silence?

Apparently a British pol by the name of Andy Burnham thinks so. The Guardian's Andrew Brown excoriates the chap thusly:
His speech to the Public Library Authority conference in Blackpool yesterday was a typical modern politician's fusion of straightforward lying with management jargon: "In the internet age, shared experiences and a shared sense of place are more important than ever. Libraries are ideally placed to be that – a welcoming and stimulating place at the heart of the community where people can come together to learn," he said.

This manages both to misunderstand what libraries and learning are, but also what the internet is and does. The whole point about the net is that, like books, it gives people a shared space and a shared experience that is not physical. If I sit in an internet cafe – or even, God forbid, an office – and talk to someone on the net, I am far closer to the person to whom I am talking than to the noble workers on each side of me, who would never dream of emailing gossip in the middle of a working day. When I read a book, I am communing with the author, and perhaps with all the other readers, not with anyone else in the railway carriage.
The bottom line is this, "when studying needs outside stimulus, you take the book away from the library, a service they already offer."

And there's more from the Guardian. Here's Charlotte Leslie:
The tragedy of all this is that the "chatter" that Burnham wants to bring into our libraries is already available in coffee shops and in many bookshops. There has been a proliferation of places which encourage web browsing and reading in a chatty environment; there is no need for libraries to replicate this. By all means, let libraries have a cafe attached where books can be taken off the shelves and read. But there is no reason for Burnham to deny people the space for quiet thought.

This is social discrimination. The well-off will still be able to access silence – for example in a room of their spacious detached house, or their country escape. My local libraries in Bristol are often peopled with GCSE students who can't find a quiet place at home to work. These are often students living in the smallest houses, from the least well-off backgrounds. Denying these children the space and silence to study and contemplate the past that the better-off may be able to find in a spare room of their house is nothing short of social discrimination at its worst. Silent libraries will become the preserve of top universities only. Burnham will be dragging us back to before the age of improvement, to a time when only the elite could afford silence.

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