• In the library

    Up in London this week for a couple of days. I’m in a friend’s flat in a tower block in Tower Hamlets, and at the moment there’s a gale howling through the ventilator shafts that’s making the whole flat shriek. That’s going to make the journey back home on the A303 fun this evening. Out of one window I can see the now-empty Olympic Village (apparently turning into another corporate rock stadium this summer, ho hum), out of another the still-futuristic-looking twinkling Canary Wharf blocks, out of another the madcap Shard. It’s a beautiful skyline. I’m sitting here thinking about libraries. Plymouth Library used to be one of my favourite places when I was a kid (I was a swotty kid). I used to go there and be tested on the books I’d taken out, and you’d get a star or something if you read ten books. When I was about 9 I ventured upstairs to the archive bit to research a project on Sir Martin Frobisher, the Tudor explorer. I felt very grand. This week I was at the Faber digital conference, and Stephen Page, the Faber CEO, spoke very interestingly about the future role of libraries. Imagining a potential future where there are no longer any mainstream bookshops on the high street (which, to paraphrase John Lennon, is quite easy if you try), he was wondering where people will discover books. As our last post pointed out, the key issue going forward is what Will Atkinson, Faber’s sales boss, called the Discovery Gap: when there are no physical bookshops left, how do people find out about books? The internet isn’t very good yet at helping people browse possible book purchases, and somehow the social network side of books still isn’t very dynamic. One of the potential contributors to this area going forward could well be the library, emerging out of its current state of crisis (Plymouth Library, despite its extremely nice and helpful staff, is not the home from home that I remember) and becoming a social hub for citizens to come and engage with the idea of the book. The more you think about that, the more exciting and feasible an idea it is. It is likely to involve a separation of the library from its dependence on local authorities by bringing in outside parties, but if there is a binding vision for a library of the future which could be shared across the country, then this could be a really significant plug in the Discovery Gap: the library could reassert itself once more as the place where we go for knowledge and for creative advancement, the secular high street church. I hope we’re going to hear a lot more about all this soon. Meanwhile, let’s all renew our library tickets, and put on those earphones and listen to the naughty Mik Artistik with his own love letter to the library.