17th May (not April as temporarily noted), 2012. 10.00 G.M.T.

We need libraries,
don't you know?

by Helen Gavaghan


LIVERPOOL, UK: Framing her support for libraries in the context of access to the written word - be it digital, or on paper - Sue Charteris, former executive director of Kirklees Council in the north of England, said last night that Britain has a literacy problem, evidenced by the country having slipped to 47th in the UNESCO league table of the proportion of a nation reading for pleasure.

Ms Charteris was speaking in one of a series of policy provocations organised by the corporate events team of the University of Liverpool. The University's question to four distinguished panelists was, "Do we still need libraries?"

"My short answers is, yes, and my long answer is yes," said Alan Davey, chief executive of the Arts Council of England. When he visits local councils he finds his exchanges at chief executive level mean he does not always hear the voice of the librarian.

Libraries enhance human development by giving access through narrative to the richness of human experience, he told the audience. "We are in a world bombarded by information. An expert library professional can help us navigate that explosion of information ... and in a communal setting."


Communality as an attribute of the library experience threaded each panelists' thinking. "Its a faulty notion that everyone 'can do it' on their own at home," said Ms Charteris. Councillor Keith Mitchell C.B.E, and former leader of Oxfordshire County Council, furthered the theme, asking why libraries could not open on Sundays when people are not at work.

Councillor Mitchell has had to cut £2 million from Oxfordshire County Council's library budget. After a hard fought battle all 43 libraries under County Council remit in Oxfordshire remain open, but opening hours have changed and there is a need for volunteers to supplement paid staff. For the future there need to be changes, he said. And he asked if police surgeries, or doctor's surgeries, or other public services might co-exist with library services.



The need to bridge the gap between the word expressed digitally and in print was also a prominent theme, with the University's librarian saying during Q and A he was unconvinced digitization enhances access to knowledge.

But for me, the most telling pro-library arguments were offered by Jonathan Rose, professor of history at Drew University in New Jersey. It was the argument against censorship. "Libraries can make controversial work available," he said. He cited the case of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, struck off the medical register in the UK. In the US, said Professor Rose, critics of Dr. Wakefield had urged debate about a book that Dr. Wakefield had written should not be followed as a science debate, something with which some media have complied. Despite critics, said Professor Rose, "the book is stocked in 600 US libraries.

"Libraries jealously guard the right to select books independently, and that's why we need libraries."

GavaghanCommunications GavaghanCommunications