Are you a member of your local library? How do you think you would react if your local library faced closure? In 2011 Stony Stratford Library, on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, was under threat. The local community, outraged at the impending budget cuts and possible closure protested, by borrowing all 16,000 of the library’s books and completely emptying all the library’s shelves. The protest worked. The library was saved.
To me, this story is interesting not just because of the power of a local community to effect change but also because it raises questions about what our library is for. Many of the community who joined the protest may not have used the library that much, if at all, but the idea that the town would no longer have a central community space, free and open to all, that promoted education and reading, and that helped empower the vulnerable and isolated amongst us, brought everyone together in a united front.
I have been working on the Library as Laboratory project with Central Bedfordshire’s libraries and eight artists for the last year and we are exploring this very question. As our society changes, what is the local library for now and what do we want our future library to be?
The local library is a brilliant resource for children and provides an inspiring place to make reading fun. There is so much on offer for children and families and many parents would be lost without their local library. However, use of the library in its current form is declining across most of the country. Afterall, you might ask, why borrow a book when you can spend a pleasant hour browsing on a Saturday in your local Waterstones and pick up 2 for 1 paperbacks, or download the latest bestseller on your e-reader in less than a minute, at 9pm at night. But this could be missing the point of your local library.
Libraries are about so much more than books. They are probably the last common space we have in this country, there anyone can spend time, read, learn, work, get information, support, advice, meet other people, take part in an activity or even sit quietly and just be. Some libraries, such as Birmingham’s new city library, have become destinations in themselves (an inspiring space – it even has a roof garden with wonderful views across the city). I browsed the new digital Bodleian library this weekend. It is absolutely amazing.
Over the course of the next few months, as we work continue our work with the libraries and communities in Central Bedfordshire, we are exploring the crisis libraries face. Most of us would not want to lose our library, so what do we want our libraries to be for? What services could they provide that they don’t at the moment? For example, would you like somewhere with free, unlimited wi-fi without having to queue and pay for a coffee to get it? Would you like somewhere to go where you could meet others and do something interesting without feeling you had to pay expensive joining fees? Would you like somewhere to go anytime that inspires you and gives you a spring in your step?
Our eight artists are developing some exciting ideas and we are inviting you to take part and explore with us. In the next few Art Speak posts I will be talking to each of our eight artists to share their thoughts on what a library is for, the role of libraries in our communities and how you can get involved in helping shape your local library of the future.