Andrew Motion: Noises Off

The Poet Laureate wants to shake-up our libraries

Saturday 22 October 2011 22:43

One million pages were read on the online poetry archive – – last month, an amazing figure. The appetite for poetry is there, but there's a real problem with delivery.

On 4 July I took over the chairmanship of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA). This body was set up by the former secretary of state for Culture, Chris Smith, shortly after New Labour came to power in 1997.

It had a bumpy time in its early days. People didn't understand what it was for. In the past year, however, there have been many changes for the better. Its purpose has become clearer – it is supportive of the sector in general and did an especially good job improving the nation's museums through its Renaissance programme. I'd say museums overall are in a pretty healthy state. Attendances are up, and visitors can expect and find high quality.

Whether this is generally true of libraries is another matter – and that is what I want to focus on during my chairmanship.

Libraries need more money and many need remodelling. Before this can happen there needs to be a national conversation about what we expect libraries to be like in 2008. Should they be full of books? Or should books take second place to machines? A lot of people, including me, come somewhere in the middle.

One of my priorities is to make libraries feel like they are part of the community. They need to find an acceptance among those parts of the community we don't see in the library.

Many people would rather have their toenails pulled out then see their libraries closed. But they aren't actually using them very much. Perhaps this is because their library offers things they can get elsewhere. Or they think the library is boring. Too many people think the library is not for them.

The 19th-century idea of what a library is has gone unchallenged for a long while, and too many libraries are using methods from a generation ago.

Worthy and generous they may be, but they are not connecting powerfully enough with the community they should be part of.

For example, television programmes about tracing family history, such as Who Do You Think You Are?, are immensely popular. That people are interested in their roots and what's possible with the presentation of knowledge is all a good thing. It's the kind of thing libraries should be helping people research.

We are having this conversation at the MLA and

need to have it more widely. My own feeling is this: libraries need to be more clearly established as places people want to visit, but also as places which can go to people. By, for example, putting a lot of things online, speeding up how people order books from home, having them delivered to their homes and collected from their homes.

There are also libraries where there are poetry readings, book readings, talks and lectures.

There are too many people who walk past a library thinking it is not for them. We need to explain that it might be for them. Then we need to make sure it is for them by making it relevant to their experience.

The poetry archive is an example of what can be achieved by the use of new technologies – it can transform appreciation of an art form, and discover audiences that are not reached by traditional means. Much the same point can be made about other kinds of material held in libraries – and in museums come to that.

The work of the MLA is not just about giving people what they want, but about allowing them to enjoy things they didn't know they wanted.

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