Tim Davies reviews a spirited defence of public libraries, which tries to define their core purpose and which argues for a re-positioning of their place in society.
For those of us who work in public libraries these are, in the words of the old Chinese proverb, 'interesting times'. The service is under scrutiny at both local and national levels, with an intensity unknown in previous generations. Public libraries are in the news, with headline stories on the BBC's Today and Newsnight. They are the focus of demonstrations and read-ins, as councils struggle to balance severely reduced budgets. They have become a shorthand method of describing the difficult choices hard-pressed local authorities are having to make: such-and-such a 'backroom function' is worth x number of libraries...
With scrutiny comes pressure, as librarians and library managers fight to convince those who hold the purse-strings that their service is relevant and necessary, and should continue to be funded. Sadly, although there is much debate, many librarians feel that it is ill-informed. The notorious Modernisation Review of 2009-2010 , for instance, contained interesting asides on the appeal of coffee and the popularity of private-sector DVD lending services, but precious little to address the real dilemma which lies at the heart of the modern British public library. This dilemma could very simply be summed up as follows: we know libraries are a good thing – we, and our users, feel this instinctively, and know it to be true; yet almost everything the library does can also be done elsewhere, more attractively, more efficiently and at less cost to the public purse.
The scrutiny of public libraries is welcome – we are being forced to defend our position like never before, and this defence could be an excellent opportunity to make clear our purpose. However, the battle for the library's soul is in dire need of reinforcements: in From Lending to Learning, Ronan O'Beirne has opened up a strategically significant new flank.
Lending and Learning
In short, this book is a call to place learning (in all its many forms) at the heart of the public library. This is unsurprising, since O'Beirne has long had an explicit interest in learning, and the library's role in supporting it. He recognises, and celebrates, the obvious and venerable tradition of the public library acting as a top-up resource to students, and its formally organised offer of homework clubs and study support sessions; he argues that this should continue. However, O'Beirne is in fact much more interested in informal learning, and the ways in which public library services can engage with the lifelong learner. He gives concrete examples, including a couple of case studies from his previous professional life; but it strikes this reviewer that these are best seen as loose templates to reflect on and take as inspiration, rather than schemes to be copied wholesale across local authority boundaries – they are projects very much of their time and place. No doubt it was indeed the author's intention simply to provide snapshots of what libraries' attempts to engage with the informal learner may look like in practice.
The true value of From Lending to Learning lies rather in the argument O'Beirne makes to expound his position. It goes further than a suggestion that the lifelong learning agenda be slotted in alongside the many other demands on the library's time and resources: it is a call to place learning at – indeed, return learning to – the heart of public library policy, both nationally and at a local level.
Whether in the public sector or, as now, in the post-16 education sector, O'Beirne is a most reflective practitioner. His style is persuasive, and is used to put forward a case informed not only by many years' experience but also by a healthy dose of that pragmatic theorising which is the closest our profession can get to having a philosophy.
A simplistic summary of the book's argument would be that we all need to make use of the public library as a form of (informal) learning – not in itself too shocking a proposition, but O'Beirne puts the case cogently and with force. A brief breakdown of the chapters follows, but two paragraphs sum things up nicely:
Yet if there is a case for treating the public library with respect…it is because it is a place where culture and heritage are…made accessible to all comers…It is a place, above all else, where learning happens. (p.31)
The true benefit of the public library is that space at the heart of the community, that area where a user can sit, stand or crouch without being disturbed, without having an agenda, without speaking or listening. That space is the essence of the public library. That part of everyone who believes instinctively that the public library is 'a good thing' and who without qualification identifies with that non-intrusive, non-political space where one is free to indulge in intellectual freedom. It is a space where one is allowed to follow one's dreams in the most intimate way, without the judgement of others. It is a space to learn. (p.174)
Summary of Coverage
Chapter 1: For what are libraries if not for learning?
The first paragraph sums up the urgent question on which the book's argument turns – and the wider debate: 'At the heart [of it all] lies a very important, yet simple, question: what are public libraries for?’ O'Beirne is not foolish enough to ignore the fact that the library means different things to different people – or, indeed, that almost everyone believes they have the moral right to say what the library means to them. After all, libraries are (almost uniquely amongst public institutions) truly all things to all people.
After posing this crucial question, he goes on to give a brief lesson in library history, setting it within the context of the current debate. Any history of public libraries must, in a work like this, be a little selective, and it is not an accident that this chapter serves to remind us of the long-standing relationship between learners and libraries – a relationship which lies, of course, at the heart of the argument the book sets out to make. Moreover, the alternative is shown to be unsatisfactory. As is said later in the same chapter, it is misguided to set too much store by the numbers of books borrowed – the reasons for borrowing them are far more important. To those who would argue that there is an important literacy and reader development role in the lending of literature, the author responds by asking why there is no explicit link between reader development activities and some sort of learning agenda. Ultimately, this chapter is a thumbnail portrait of the library as something much more than just lending books.
Chapter 2: Understanding today's public libraries
Chapter two sets out to look at the relationship between public libraries and the book, and ‘its iconic value’. It also touches on the tortured relationship between libraries and their paymasters in local government.
Readers could be forgiven for approaching From Lending to Learning with some expectation (whether sceptical or enthusiastic) of finding the importance of the book diminished; replaced perhaps by yet another call for libraries to embrace the technological revolution, to stop fighting a rearguard action against the migration of reading habits from print to digital. Yet this would do both O’Beirne and his argument a great disservice. He describes the book as one of the ‘fundamental icons of civilisation and…one of the greatest…pieces of engineering constructed by man…[it is] ingenious.’
After a brief discourse on their importance in earlier times - as mythical and religious objects, then as the vehicle of academic and scientific progress – he considers whether the days of the book are numbered. This is followed by recognition of the very special place that libraries – and the idea of libraries – have in people’s hearts. However, libraries and books must not be confused.
From here, O’Beirne goes on to consider library leadership. Tellingly, he lists the areas of local authority activity where the library is relevant. The list is a long one, running through community cohesion and regeneration to social inclusion, information literacy and Every Child Matters. The point will be developed later, on the basis of this list, that emphasising the library’s ability to support learning can and should help library services to take a position within each of these spheres of activity.
In the meantime, the problems of service visibility and confused leadership from elected members are rehearsed, and the point made that despite many attempts by librarians to promote themselves, ‘there remains a lack of understanding…of the many roles the public library can play.’ Touching briefly on how libraries have simply extended (DVDs, Wiis, etc) rather than having truly diversified, O’Beirne goes on to argue – again not particularly controversially, these days – for proper strategic planning and an understanding by the library of its market. It is time, he says, for the big questions to be addressed (should market demand lead the way, or do libraries have a higher social responsibility?) and finishes by suggesting that they should place the needs of learners at the heart of everything.
Chapter 3: Public libraries lost in the learning landscape
This chapter introduces the relationship between learning and libraries on which the rest of the book is based. The first crucial distinction is between education (with its formal trappings of institutions and qualifications) and learning – ‘by necessity a process focused on the individual’. For the purposes of O’Beirne’s argument, learning is understood to involve ‘change, development and the desire to learn more’, and to mean adult or lifelong learning. He makes clear that he considers libraries’ provision of services to children and young people in this area to be taken as read, and the responsibly of the service to be more or less clear-cut.
With echoes, indeed, of the 1850 Public Libraries Act , the modern concept of lifelong learning ‘can counter social exclusion, contribute towards personal development and promote self-fulfilment.’ Moreover, the modern economy demands a workforce which is capable of intellectual flexibility, and is prepared to see ‘learning’ as an on-going, lifelong process – although the debate rages over whether more informal learning should in fact be seen as of primarily personal benefit. The complexity of the debate around learning is merely touched on – the emphasis is on libraries’ duty to get on board.
After an overview of the recent history of lifelong learning initiatives, it is argued that whilst libraries have been excluded from the focus on learning for the last decade or so, now is a good time to (re-)assert their strong influence over informal lifelong learning.
Chapter 4: Developing learning services in public libraries
This chapter sets out an introduction to what we might mean – or understand – by the use of the word ‘learning’ in relation to public libraries. As the author says: ‘For libraries to support lifelong learning they have to understand the needs, motivations and aspirations of a range of learners.’ At the heart of the argument is a notion which builds on a 1998 speech by John Dolan – a shift from libraries as storehouses of resources to libraries as access points to information, learning and knowledge. ‘[This] identifies a place and mission for the library and, coupled with appropriate use of technology, begins the process of creating the new learner-focused library.’
It is at this point that the argument is first forcefully made for library staff to be properly trained in facilitating learning – in understanding what it entails, how learners learn (informally, particularly), and how the library can support, develop, foster - and in some cases, direct – such learning.
There is some discussion of theories of learning, and the (arbitrary but useful) distinction between formal and informal learning clarified. From here on in, the emphasis is much more on the informal learner. The idea is touched on that libraries, in non-fiction sections, provide ‘a well-arranged series of facts which represent a particular truth’; this reviewer prefers to see libraries as offering a range of facts which contribute to a particular argument – although it is plain that this relies on the learner having the will, curiosity and ability to find the ‘truth’. In fact, the importance of information literacy in this context is addressed in Chapter 7.
O’Beirne recognises that both formal and informal learning take place without staff intervention, and that the informal type in particular is more likely to be invisible. Once again, the importance of (re-)training staff, possibly with a more formal advice and guidance role, is stressed. However, it is through responding to the motivations of self-directed learners – and offering them a supportive environment - that libraries can reposition themselves within the ‘information society’.
Chapter 5: Digital citizenship in a learning community
The book goes on to explore the relationship between learning and citizenship – and the idea that a fuller engagement with society leads to greater inclusion, greater community cohesion, and perhaps greater intellectual curiosity. In short, it can act as a prompt and handmaid to learning. Moreover, as more and more government services are migrating to the Web, there is a need to engage a significant minority of the population (and not only the elderly) with information technologies. An engaged and coherent society these days needs must be a digitally aware and IT-literate one.
The author’s argument that, ‘We can see exclusion in terms of learning and the motivations for learning’, articulates to some extent the vague notion most library staff have of the utility of their services, and how we might help. However, it has to be recognised that reluctant learners exist – those who, perhaps, choose to exclude themselves. It is not within the scope of the book to address this problem, but it could have merited more than a passing reference.
Chapter 6: Information and knowledge in the learning society
The discussion here takes as its starting point that provision of information has changed in recent years, and how the role of the reference and information aspect of public libraries has come under threat. The author points out that the obsession with lending (and lending figures) has not helped reference services to develop sufficiently to cope with the new information landscapes.
In a brief but passionate defence of reference provision, O’Beirne argues that they are struggling not because they are no longer necessary, but because information itself – and the way we use it – has changed. This chapter articulates concisely one of the main dilemmas the profession faces today: if we no longer need to be the ‘intermediary’ to information, what is our role? It proposes that the answer lies in facilitating learning - or the ‘effective’ retrieval of information, rather than just retrieval; in short, Information Literacy (IL):
Reference libraries should not be in decline, they should in fact be the learning engines of our society fuelled by the information explosion, tended by the information professional and stoked by an aggressive agenda of social inclusion and citizenship to bridge the digital divide. (p.116)
Satisfyingly, the author then proceeds to discuss the relationship (or difference) between information and knowledge – or, as this reviewer prefers to think of the latter term, wisdom – and highlights the way libraries can reflect the new learning: inter-textuality, imaginative literature as a learning tool, the reference interview as opening a ‘vista of possibilities’. Everything comes round to IL again, which is ‘the key to unlocking the…library’ and ‘lays the foundation for wider engagement in society’.
Chapter 7: Technology for learning and citizenship
Libraries’ adoption of technology has always been a topic of discussion and debate. Here, the discussion shifts its attention, helpfully, onto the ‘motivation and impact of technology use.’ Having established in Chapter 6 that Information Literacy is the key, we here have a discussion of what it might mean to the public library. An important difference in the public library sector is the random, informal nature of many readers’ learning.
The concept of ‘information creation literacy’ as potentially more important in the future than ‘information retrieval literacy’ is introduced. Whilst this reviewer would never deny that ‘production’ is as important as any other pillar of Information Literacy, it could be argued that the concept is already inherent in the standard definition. Granted, however, that it may be useful to loosen the definition of ‘production’ to accommodate the informality of the public library setting.
It is gently argued that public library staff might consider adopting a similar strategy to academic and college librarians, in taking on a clear role in ‘teaching’ IL – rather than guardians of knowledge, we should be guides. Echoing back to the idea of an engaged citizen also being an information-literate one, O’Beirne points out that libraries can help avoid citizens seeking ‘moral direction’ from the banality of popular culture by facilitating access to our cultural and intellectual heritage.
There follows a real-life example from O’Berine’s experience – Pop-I  – which, appropriately enough was a training tool for library staff in the importance of IL. This leads on to a valuable discussion on the use of Virtual Learning Environments, in which stress is placed on the importance of having a strategic rationale and purpose in the adoption of new technologies. This is indeed a valuable point, well made.
The second real-life example in this chapter picks up the idea of ‘production’ – or user/learner-generated content – and draws lessons from the ‘Shipley Communities Online’ community network. The great success of this was the birth of an organically grown, ‘bottom-up’ network of information, which had as its major by-product a collaborative learning function for those involved.
Chapter 8: Looking to the future
The (perhaps slightly too lengthy) concluding chapter reminds us that libraries in 1850 were explicitly about informal learning. Libraries have now lost this focus through their ‘pursuit of the popular’, and O’Beirne sets out a valid argument to the effect that this focus on entertainment is no longer defensible. In chapter 8 he adds that for libraries to survive the change in emphasis, realigning everyone’s professional priorities through investment in retraining staff is essential.
A brief consideration of how information may look in the future follows, including the suggestion that even reading fiction will become a multi-media experience. Whilst this is becoming a topic of regular discussion on arts programmes (especially as the e-book develops its true potential) there is a strong counter-argument that could be made, that audio- and visually enhanced, multi-media format ‘books’ are simply not the same imaginative experience as plain text. O’Beirne seems to imply that reading plain text fiction is a passive experience, rather than an engrossing act which requires intellectual investment and stretches and develops the reader’s imagination and humanity.
Thereafter, a select few other potential developments, within social networking and around the idea of memetics, are touched on, before the argument finally comes back round to the central tenet of the book: libraries should re-focus their priorities on supporting learning ‘by stealth’ (both by individuals and by communities), and invest in training and attracting staff who can act as indispensible guides in the overcrowded multi-media information environment.
This book presents a challenge, both to the thinking professional, and the reviewer. The thrust of it is sound, and the author is careful to anticipate and address potential criticism of his views. It is the result of many years’ valuable experience and some very thoughtful and constructive reflection on that experience. The argument it presents is one of the more valuable and useful to public libraries in the current climate.
It crams a wealth of knowledge and experience into some 200 pages. Whilst the basic argument is simple, it requires a good deal of complex and detailed background, and the author does well to present this as concisely as he does. There are many places in the text where further elaboration is desirable – or necessary, indeed – but impossible in a book of this length and nature. It is to be hoped that it will act as a springboard for further research and discussion; likewise that it will spur library managers, professionals and service area directors into refocusing their services – which is urgently and critically necessary.
In the meantime, From Lending to Learning is a boost to our self-confidence, a call to arms, and a coherent defence of the importance of public libraries. It should be read by current professionals, library managers and students on LIS courses everywhere.
- The modernisation review of public libraries: A policy statement, March 2010. Department for Culture, Media and Sport
- Public Libraries Act 1850, Wikipedia: 17 September 2011
- PoP-i Project Web site
Tim Davies is a librarian with North Lincolnshire Council. With a colleague he leads on the service’s engagement with community learning, as well as taking responsibility for initiatives around health information (especially mental health), economic development, housing and digital exclusion. He does his fair share of reference and enquiry work, and can often be found leading local history and storytelling walks around the area.