Perhaps the peculiarly hybrid name of his department – Culture, Media and Sport – has clouded his judgement. But the Secretary of State, Andy Burnham, will today add his voice to calls by chief librarians for a revolution to modernise public libraries and "bring them into the 21st century". In Mr Burnham's words, this means banishing the image of libraries as "solemn and sombre places patrolled by fearsome and formidable staff" and making them "come alive for generations to come".
The Society of Chief Librarians recently spelt out what this might mean in practice, citing the north London borough of Camden as a pioneer of "diversification". In Camden, a ban on mobile phones is being lifted and visitors will be allowed to bring snacks and drinks. The provision of computer games is among other options under consideration. And, yes, the silence rule will be lifted.
In other words, the public library of the future is envisaged as a cross between one of those big book stores with its own coffee bar and an internet café. Books will be relegated to the sidelines, rather than being what a library is all about. In fact, many started "diversifying" their offerings long ago by lending out CDs and DVDs and scaling back their stacks of books. Many already provide Web access and, increasingly, the silence rule is being broken. In many of our towns and cities, Mr Burnham's "solemn and sombre place" became a period piece long ago.
We quite understand that libraries need to justify their existence and that serving local people is the reason for their existence. We also appreciate that, outside urban areas, internet access and DVD loans might well constitute welcome public services that are not offered elsewhere. But we would argue that a major reason why the number of people visiting libraries has been falling has little to do with the absence of non-book options, and a lot to do with the long hours people work and the unpredictability of the days and times many libraries now open.
The clientele is bound to consist mostly of "regulars", if the library is open only two days a week between 10am and 4pm. There are also positive reasons why fewer people frequent libraries: books are comparatively cheaper and more accessible than they used to be, and many people now have internet access at home.
But at a time when, as we also report today, young people are reading fewer and fewer books, it seems perverse that the very places that were always most conducive to reading are losing the qualities that make them unique.
By all means make novels and reference books available also on screen, as the reading survey recommends, but do not sacrifice the peace and quiet. Amid the noise of the 21st century, the old-fashioned library remains a welcome repository of calm. Just try opening the doors wider, and for longer.Reuse content