The cultural institutions of the 21st century

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Public libraries should be the central cultural institutions of the 21st century. This is what Australians think, at least. Their Deputy Prime Minister, Brian Howe, recently stated: "The public library should become the nodal point of the developing information superhighway".

Rightly so, as public libraries trade in our most valuable commodities - information and knowledge. Increasingly, as old industries disappear, new wealth is created less through what we manufacture and more through the application of new knowledge to products, processes and services.

The core business idea of the library thus remains a surprisingly modern one. Providing access to knowledge, helping self-improvement, enhancing skills and opportunities and making us more competent and informed has never been more relevant as Britain struggles to compete on a global scale.

As information becomes a commodity, the gap between the information-rich and poor is widening, and the public library network, with its key notion of free access, has the potential to bridge it. It should ally itself to the emerging "right to know" movement and make that its clarion call. No political party could argue against the idea of the informed citizen, and the library's role is to help us to be able to navigate our way through the growinginformation maze. In this way the public library could update its core rationale.

The public libraries' problem is success. This success has made them in part complacent. They have largely assumed that the services they provide and how they deliver them need no reassessment. The library is our most popular cultural institution; it is accessible. It is one of the few institutions where users can take from it what they want. A user can borrow a book, a CD, a video, call up information, use it as a homework or open-learning centre and even as a social space. But is the library doing too many things and not enough of them well enough?

In an era of reduced public funding, the library needs to provide clearer evidence of its economic and social worth in order to justify its expenditure demands. It needs to focus on its strengths. This is what the arts, museums and sports have done effectively, but the library has remained largely silent. The clich of the self-effacing, kind librarian who makes us trust them and feel welcome and relaxed is not much use when budgets are being divvied up or cut. And so the world of librarianship has progressively become less confident.

Public libraries still talk too much to themselves and reinforce a self- contained world rather than talking to the outside. They have not tried hard enough to create partnerships or strategic alliances, for example with information providers such as Microsoft, BT or MCI or with similar open institutions like the Open University. So they keep on missing opportunities or new funding sources, because they have not cultivated new friends - and these new friends will be their future supporters. For example, the new one-stop information shops - core library territory - are largely being developed outside the library network.

Some people love libraries, yet others feel they are dowdy, dull and old fashioned.

While the library idea is modern, its structure and working attitudes remain unreconstructed. Can the library innovate? Perhaps - but only if it radically changes its mindset and organisational culture. It needs to transform its supposed crisis into a challenge - as it has everything going for it.

It is still too hierarchical, with rigid divisions between assistants and chief librarians: as a result, not enough new ideas circulate. It needs to communicate more with its users and their emerging aspirations. It needs to bring in outsiders, as in Sweden where the director of the largest library school is, strangely, an ethnographer who has successfully revolutionised library education. It needs to hold conferences about the future of libraries with non-librarians which become catalyst events. It needs money to develop more experimental pilot projects and when these work the librarians should be praised, acclaimed and become role models.

Importantly, every library needs a strategy appropriate to its local circumstances: only in this way will they become institutions that learn and respond. And in order to operate in the new environment, every librarian needs to become a social entrepreneur, whose motive is not profit in the narrow sense, but whose success is judged by how competent, confident and informed their users become.

Charles Landry is director of Comedia and co-author with Liz Greenhalgh and Ken Worpole of 'Public Libraries in a World of Cultural Change' (UCL Press, 1995).