A local politician in Marlborough, New Zealand, has suggested ditching the district’s libraries in favour of distributing e-readers to residents.
Although Kiwi librarians are attempting to push back with the Twitter hashtag #morethanbooks, responses have tended to focus on the fact that libraries use e-books too, and include other items like music in their collections as well.
The simple truth is, libraries aren’t about books on shelves, or compact discs, or even e-readers. Those are tools, mere means to an end.
Libraries are about helping the public to explore the world of knowledge and culture on their own terms. That might mean performance art in British libraries, bringing books to life through gaming in Toronto, or holding teen zombie battles in Auckland.
A library isn’t just a storage space for books on shelves – it’s also a place where musicians perform; where computer software is written; where teens get to wrestle a zombie-bitten police officer to the ground while debating the ethics of surviving a disaster scenario.
Yet one local politician has said “Why not replace libraries with e-readers?” and Kiwi librarians are on the defensive, letting their enemies set the terms of the debate.
I experienced similar frustration in the way that television coverage of our zombie event in South Auckland emphasized reading levels over immersive play and creativity. Teenagers from this deprived area of New Zealand’s biggest city were doing more than just reading: they were given the chance to step into the world of a zombie adventure, using library resources to plan their own survival but also venturing out among the zombie hordes!
Libraries are not schools; they needn’t directly concern themselves with reading levels; they’re about exploration and enjoyment of culture through many forms of media. A space for imagination, play, and learning on your own terms.
I can make the case for New Zealand libraries to operate this way in just three points:
- Even the UN’s basic missions for a public library don’t mention books, so let’s not even TALK about shelves vs e-readers when we debate the future of librarianship. Libraries are about service and content – the media we deliver them by are just the means to an end.
- At 4 million people, New Zealand is just the right size to become a leading library nation globally, in the same way that little old Finland transformed its school system to one of the best in the world.
- All we need to do to achieve this is get frontline librarians to be more confident about service innovation, and for management to support them by giving them time, public relations support, and the backing to take risks and try new ventures.
Kiwi libraries need to stop being on the defensive and allowing their enemies to set the terms of the debate. Libraries aren’t even close to writing their final chapter. They’re making the future, and in more fascinating ways than almost any other part of the public sector.
It’s time to remind the public of that fact. And let that poor Marlborough councillor know – libraries are going on the warpath.