More noise please

Libraries are ‘out of touch’.

Andy Burnham, the Secretary of State for Culture, will today launch a consultation on changing the face of libraries which he believes are out of touch…Noise bans will also be reviewed…”The popular public image of libraries as solemn and sombre places, patrolled by fearsome and formidable staff is decades out of date, but is nonetheless taken for granted by too many people,” he will say, adding that the sector would have to “think radical” to modernise.

Too many for what? Why should the sector modernize? Why does Burnham (apparently) think it’s a bad thing that libraries are out of touch?

If you ‘save’ or ‘preserve’ or ‘rescue’ libraries (or anything else) by turning them into their own opposites, then what is it that you have saved or preserved? What, in short, is the point? What is the point of modernizing or transforming or changing the face of libraries by turning them into something altogether different? Why not just forget all about libraries? It would surely be cheaper.

In Camden, north London, the council will lift a ban on mobile phones in its libraries this month and users will be allowed to bring in snacks and drinks…A spokesman at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said the Government wanted to transform the atmosphere of libraries to make them more similar to Waterstones stores.

Why? Why not have two different kinds of things instead of just one thing? Or why not save public money by selling libraries to Waterstones and letting them make the former libraries more similar to Waterstones stores?

[Burnham] suggested that the traditional “silence” in libraries be reviewed and opening hours extended. “Libraries should be a place for families and joy and chatter. The word chatter might strike fear into the heart of traditionalists but libraries should be social places that offer an antidote to the isolation of someone playing on the internet at home.”

Why? Why should libraries be a place for families and joy and chatter? There are already lots of places for families and joy and chatter (also families and irritation and chatter). There are shops and community centers and sports facilities and parks and living rooms and gardens and stadiums and McDonalds – there are lots and lots of places. Why do libraries have to stop being what libraries are good at being and be something else instead, when the something else is already abundant and easy to find?

The reason seems to be (at least I can’t think of any other) a vague background idea that libraries are a good thing and so people should be motivated to come into them. But the background idea that libraries are a good thing can’t have been thought about with any care, because the reason they are a good thing is that they provide things (books and a place to read and study and think about them) that are incompatible with motivating people to come into them by making them places where it is impossible to read and study and think about books. Do you see what I’m getting at here? You might as well try to motivate people to come into museums by filling them with mounds of rotting garbage. You might as well try to motivate people to go for hikes in the mountains by transforming the mountains into replicas of Las Vegas. You might as well try to motivate people to play tennis by removing the net and the boundary lines.

My library would bring a smile of delight to the Secretary of State for ‘Culture.’ We’re way ahead of him here in Seattle. My library is very much a place for families and joy and chatter; what it’s not is a place where it’s possible to read or think or study. It’s a fucking zoo. It’s one big room, divided into areas but with no walls, so all the noise is freely available for the hearing. The children’s section (which is surrounded by adult books) provides toys as well as books, including wooden toys, which fill the air with clatter. Everyone talks in an unsubdued voice, and many people talk in a frankly loud one. Children run around screaming with gay abandon. It’s like a pleasantly-run summer camp; what it’s not like is a library.

Everyone I know detests this situation, but we’ve all given up complaining about it. It’s official policy. This is all the more bizarre because there is a community center two blocks away, packed with recreational opportunities. Why the library too has to function as a day-care center and all-purpose rumpus room is beyond our understanding, but so it is. It is official policy. ‘Libraries should be social places.’

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