Monday, 22 May 2017

The Future of Libraries, by Dan Metcalf

I'm a former librarian, so expect this post to have some bias to it...

There has been loads written on the future of libraries,  this one for instance is a great article , far more articulate than I could ever be, but it hit the nail on the head in its first few lines:

"Libraries are not about books. In fact, they were never about books"

True - Libraries are about people.

They are about the people that come in and support them, about the people that take out the latest PD James for the tenth time, about the people who come in to do their homework, and about the people who come in just for a chat.

They are about the library assistant, forever helpful and friendly (and ok, sometimes not, but we can learn from that too). They are about the librarian, shaping and arranging information so that everyone can find it with a minimum of effort. They are about the library managers, putting on events and readings, storytimes and rhymetimes week in, week out. All these people don't do it for the cash - there are no end of year bonuses here - they do it for the people who walk over that welcome mat at the beginning of every day.

"Libraries are not about books. In fact, they were never about books." This much is obvious. Before books, there were scrolls. Before scrolls, there were stone tablets. Before stone tablets, there were crusty old men and women with minds like attics, ready to tell you the exact piece of information you needed (in fact, I think this might be my perferred information method).

IF books go the way of the dodo or the VHS tape (I'm not saying they will, at least, not for a while), then so be it. If the next incarnation of the library is digital, then so be it. But I see a time when society has crumbled and all the library buildings have been turned into GAP stores, and everyone wanders about with their head up their iPad. Those people will stop and search for that little something that is missing in their lives. And I think that missing thing will be...a library.

A place to go. A place to think. A place to find hidden gems, to find that bit of info you needed, or that you didn't know that you need. A place to create, to stimulate and above all, to interact with people.

Because that's what a library is - a people-centred interaction space. In times gone by, that may have been a campfire around which the elders of the tribe told stories and offered advice to the youngest recruits. It may have been soothsayer's corner, where nutjobs professed about the future. But at some point in human history, it became easier to write these stories and information down, and store it in one place so that people could go there and connect with it. Every time you pick up a book, you are connecting with that author, just as much as when you look at a blog, download a podcast or buy an ebook. You connect with a person.

So what will happen to libraries? I hope that the governments will invest in them, and believe in them as social centres which are crucial to the development of civilisation. They should become something more than 'book places'. Perhaps 'Inspiration spaces'? Or 'maker spaces'? I actually would like, once the evil robot overlords have crushed us to a pulp, and the human race has pulled ourselves up from the ashes (stop me when I get too far fetched...), that one old man, his head full of a lifetime of stories and experience, will sit himself in the corner of a town and hang a sign around his neck which says, simply, 'Library - Ask Me Anything'.

Dan Metcalf is a writer of children fiction. His next book, Codebusters, is out in July and you can learn more about him at


JO said...

I travel - and was in Pokhara (Nepal) a couple of years ago, where they are hugely proud of their library. It's small at the moment, but will grow - they see it as a sign of their development that they bring literacy to as many as possible.

Meanwhile we are closing libraries and limiting access to books to those who can afford to buy them.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

A great post Dan. Thank you! Loved the man at the end with the sign. Storytelling is in us... in all humankind... just as in the first stories around the fire in the mouth of a cave. I remember in Beijing seeing people write stories in water with brushes on the pavement stones, that evaporated. I never understood what they were writing but I'm sure the crowds of local people that gathered, used these moments like others use a library, sharing a concept, an idea, a moment of interaction... however fleeting.