Re-imagining Carnegie: Libraries for the 21st Century, Helen Milner

This is the transcript of my speech I made today (16 October 2013) as part of the Andrew Carnegie International Legacy events taking place in Edinburgh:

In order to prepare for today I literally imagined myself sitting with Andrew Carnegie talking about how he could make the greatest impact on today’s society by leveraging his billions. I’m sure I would have liked him, I too am a positivist and a modernist. But I’m pretty certain he wouldn’t want to ‘save the libraries’ – at least not save the libraries as a 20th century construct. He would agree this is time for revolution not evolution.

The fundamental problem is that most people think of libraries as being about a building with books in it. Indeed Andrew Carnegie is himself credited for inventing self service stacks – better access to books, for browsing and discovery. As a poor bobbin boy in 1849 Carnegie shamed his local library in Pennsylvania to let him use it for free as the common practice then was to charge $2 and he couldn’t afford that. And it’s this bobbin boy – or his 2013 equivalent – that I’m imagining as a user of a 21st century library.

But let’s not forget that Andrew Carnegie’s passion was the power of access to information – indeed information you can browse and discover. In 2013 is that only possible in a building with books in it?

Before you think I’m here as a hater of libraries, I’m not. When he was four I asked my son what his favourite place in Sunderland was, he said the library. When I was a teenager the library was the place that gave me free and non judgemental access to classical music, jazz, as well as Leonard Cohen and the Sex Pistols – my home was full of books but not of music. And I work with thousands of libraries in my day job.

So, what is a library? For me, it provides:

  • fulfilment

  • opportunity

  • a safe haven that doesn’t judge

  • and it’s free and universal.

Well, you’ve all got a mobile in your pocket that does that.

The internet provides fulfilment: you can read a book, write a book, write a blog, watch a film, upload your own film, research your local history or family tree, create, share, converse. Last night in the Warhol exhibition here at the Scottish Parliament, there were lots of signs that said ‘no photos’. It beggars belief that in 2013 that matters. Why do I need to take a photo? I just made a digital note of the name of a picture I liked on my phone and googled it later and posted a link of it on facebook to share it with my friends.

The internet provides opportunity:

  • access to all of the jobs in Edinburgh, in Scotland, in the UK, in Europe, in the World

  • better access to information for homework, for research

  • ease to start a business – to research need, to search for competitors, to register your company.

The internet is fulfilling, rewarding, and challenging. The internet is free and universal.

But!! Two big buts.

1. Where is my guide and my helper on the internet? Where is the person I trust to support me and point me in the right direction?

2. And, in the UK 11m people can’t use the internet. In the US that’s 69m. In the world it’s 4.6bn. 4.6bn people who can’t use the internet in the world today in 2013.

That’s my day job – to help the 11m in the England who can’t use the web – and we’re doing well so far, we’ve helped 1.16m in the past three years in England through working in partnership with 3000 public libraries and 2000 hyperlocal community centres.

Public libraries AND community centres providing free access and support to anyone and everyone. Helping them to learn basic digital skills using our free online courses and a common learning platform, with staff and volunteers there who you trust to help and guide you. Over 1m people have benefitted from this in the past three years.

The power of the internet is that it can inspire, fulfil and entertain. The internet provides people with opportunities that are different (better) to those offered, perhaps even imagined by, parents and peers. You could say that the internet is much like the library of the 19th century.

My fear is that we’re rebranding libraries not re-imagining them. We’re building amazing buildings and putting other things alongside our books, but somehow “Library” doesn’t seem to be deemed the right word anymore. At the wonderful Chattanooga Library the cool stuff is done on the “4th Floor” – “a public laboratory and educational facility with a focus on information, design, technology, and the applied arts. The 14,000 sq foot space hosts equipment, expertise, programs, events, and meetings that work within this scope.” While “traditional library spaces support the consumption of knowledge by offering access to media, the 4th floor is unique because it supports the production, connection, and sharing of knowledge by offering access to tools and instruction.”

In England 10% of the Libraries are now community run. I wondered if they are therefore a hotbed of innovation where communities are challenging the 19th and 20th century norms of what a library should be. Sadly not. Or not yet anyway.

Two great examples.

In Huddersfield, UK, the Chestnut Centre is a library and cafe by day, but “once the library closes in the evening the centre will transform into a cinema” putting “the Chestnut Centre at the heart of culture and arts in our area”. Isn’t it still the library after dark when the cinema is on?

And there’s a new “library/hack/maker space” in St Botolphs, Colchester built in the old bus station waiting room – driven by innovators – not by, but “in partnership” with Essex Libraries.

These examples are amazing, really amazing, showing how libraries can re-invent themselves. And, Louise has also spoken about her great Arhaus example. Fantastic work.

But the most exciting innovation I’ve heard in the past year is “a community library point” in Philadelphia where a community centre has a big fat fast broadband cable coming to it – from the city library – and that was called “a community library point”. It is free information and fulfilment coming to a disadvantaged community via the internet. And it is called a library. No books, just the web … in a community centre, with wonderful people to guide and support. The community centre knows the people who live in that community, so they can design and provide the services they need. They can do it better with faster and cheaper bandwidth.

Maybe the best thing about libraries is the brand.

But some libraries are not great, in fact some are quite poor. They don’t ask their communities what they need. They don’t innovate. They don’t think about how to attract the local young ‘bobbin boys’ (like the young Andrew Carnegie) to their services. They are stuck in the past.

And in some local communities it’s the local community organisation or community centre (not the library) who is the heart of local services to meet local needs, not just run for this generation’s Andrew Carnegies but by them. Why are they not worthy of being in this new movement of what we could call a Library?

If Andrew Carnegie was here and asked me if he should spend £1bn on saving the libraries and £1bn next year and the year after that. I would say No. But that’s what the UK Government is spending now, every year.

But I would say yes to the £1bn – and that’s our fear, if we say that libraries aren’t good enough then the money will be whipped away from us and not spent on fulfilment and opportunity for all.

We want the £1bn investment – but to be spent in a different way:

  • yes, to a community space where people can meet and feel free and not judged

  • yes, to access to information and entertainment in many many media

  • yes, to programmes to make sure that everyone knew that they could achieve new things beyond the knowledge of their peers

  • yes, to excitement about learning

  • yes, to people there to guide and support if needed

  • yes, to making sure the internet and internet skills are freely available for everyone in our society.

  • To quote Andrew Carnegie: Yes it should all be “free to the people.” And free to all, not just those who are library members.

Yes, most importantly, to much more, and much better partnerships between local organisations who are serving each community.

And yes to being bold about challenging ourselves more, affecting more change, working faster and harder so that everyone can achieve their potential.

Please get in touch if you’d like to continue this conversation.

27 thoughts on “Re-imagining Carnegie: Libraries for the 21st Century, Helen Milner

  1. Pingback: Re-imagining Carnegie: Libraries for the 21st Century, Helen Milner – Helen Milner | Public Sector Blogs

  2. I think the ability to browse unhurried while in the libraries is something you miss with the phone in your pocket. You also miss out the power of fiction. My favourite place in Sunderland growing up was also the library. I read fiction growing up and the world got bigger with each book I read, my reading and writing obviously also improved. The fiction I read made me think and also made me more interested in the world and started me reading newspapers. Libraries are about access to information yes, but the index on the internet isn’t that great and googling doesn’t always get you the answer you want. We are one of the richest countries in the world and our literacy rates are very poor, closing more libraries and sticking phones in the pockets of our children isn’t going to fix that.

    • Thanks Ruby. I agree with what you say. I’m arguing for more libraries and for a broader definition of what we mean by a library to include community centres and other community spaces. We can’t ignore the enormous power of the web to bring more information to more people, and this has to be part of the mix. Alongside people to guide and support if needed.

    • I didn’t think Helen was advocating shutting down libraries or replacing them al with mobile phones. Everybody knows libraries are closing. Everybody knows it’s bad. So it’s even more crucial then, that the libraries that remain get better, busier and more relevant to more people. Of course some people, young and old, still want and need books, but that’s not the be all and end all of a modern public library service.
      I go to a book club where the 20+ members are mainly under 30 and most don’t use a library. Meetings are held in a hackspace used by nearly 60 different groups. The events calendar is always full. (It’s mainly run by volunteers). Why don’t all these groups meet at a library? Why do they choose a chilly ex-shop with uncomfortable old school chairs? I think it’s because it’s a true community space, born out of user need, run and programmed by it’s community members, not a distant cabal of council officials and anonymous middle managers.
      Why is a public library run by a local authority always assumed to be the best system and why do people who ask get accused of wanting to close libraries or of being a consultant/Tory stooge? Lots of councils don’t really support or care about their library service. Many have run them down over the years. Lots don’t even have book funds, wifi, good websites, librarians etc. Is that a good system? I don’t have the answers, but I’m glad people are posing the questions.

      • Thanks Sue. Great response. Out of interest where is the Book Club? Could it partner with the local library to have this conversation and see if the library can help out in any way (such as loaning sets of books for the book club to read)? Thank you so much for pointing out I’m not a Tory stooge – because I’m not.

      • Hi Helen. The bookclub is in Manchester’s Madlab (www.madlab.org) and it was originally set up in partnership with Manchester Libraries about 3 years ago. The library supplied 20 books each month (which went back into libraries after each book club meeting). Interestingly, a few months ago the group decided they didn’t need the library to buy them books anymore as they were happy to download them. get them secondhand or by other means. I work for Manchester libraries and we’ve partnered on some pretty cool projects with Madlab and Manchester Girl Geeks – Coding for Girls, Digital Skills for Women (courses ranging from basic It to programming) and Mini Makerspace Electronics workshops.

  3. There is a lot to agree with here but the one thing, and it’s a major thing, that’s missing from this speech is the power of literacy and the ability of libraries to deliver this. Given the recent OECD and IOE reports this is a glaring omission.

    The first part of Carnegie’s first dictum was to “spend the first third of one’s life getting all the education one can.” This is still as appropriate today as in Carnegie’s time. And libraries still have an important role to play in helping people achieve this; through supporting formal education and lifelong learning, provide the best possible access to information, and community space to facilitate this. But most of all they should foster love of reading for pleasure. This is not a luxury but both a social and economic imperative.

    • I agree, and most libraries foster literacy and do that really well. I’m really impressed with all Children’s Libraries I visit – the pre-school work in particular is fabulous. I’d like to explore how libraries working with community organisations – perhaps in different kinds of venues as well as libraries – could make sure this love of reading can be relevant and encouraged across all our communities and for everyone.

  4. [re-posting, in case the e-links I included stop my comment from being posted]

    In order to prepare this response I, too, have imagined myself sitting beside Andrew Carnegie’s grave in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, New York. To my delight I found that the union organiser, Samuel Gompers – buried just a few yards away – had in ‘heaven’ chummed up with Andrew, so wanted to join in our chat as well. Mr Gompers had read Carnegie’s *Triumphant Democracy*. Both gentlemen seemed less willing to discuss Libraries than they were to express their dismay that the issues of most importance to them were being gently manipulated by their successors. They were aware of the public outcry in both the United States and the UK about library closures and that people’s democratic right to be heard is totally ignored. Andrew was particularly incensed by the inability of Lincolnshire County Council to provide library services to rural residents; so angry that I thought he would die, again, from apoplexy. He and Gompers were horrified that the professional Library Service is under attack. They had noted the point you made: “No books, just the web … in a community centre, with wonderful people to guide and support” and feared for professional library staff and service quality – He explained that he’d joined the equivalent of UNISON in the afterlife. Andrew, surprisingly, agreed with his neighbour, citing his 1889 work, *Wealth*. He said that since he wrote it governments had fortunately taken on much of the responsibility for the poor and vulnerable in society – and complained that what he was doing until he died in 1919 should not be reinvented. Philanthropy, he said, was key to solving all domestic ills back then – but he insisted the world had moved on. How he laughed when I said that the British royal family is still held in much affection: *Wealth*, he said, had intended to put an end to that, but the Trust had never pursued the matter on his behalf. He lamented that the same British establishment continues to exist, often demonstrating a willful disregard of people’s needs and rejection of their democratic rights. Delighted that, by means of new technology, he could easily see the people’s priorities which you can find on pinterest > iananstice/libraryprotests – he reaffirmed that it was the common people whom he still cared most about. He said that ignoring their demands is a democracy fail – and he did not want his successors to mount the bandwagon. Most tellingly, he and Gompers were both aghast that the British government is now on its official Gov website (create a community library) advocating the replacement of the excellent library service he’d helped to establish, with mediocre, volunteer-run ‘book-exchanges’

    Further to our imaginary chat, and this is but the edited version of it, I concluded that he would want to ‘save the libraries’, Ms Milner. But, then, imaginary chats with long-dead people tend to produce conflicting answers, don’t they?

    • Thanks Shirley. I really enjoyed reading here about your imaginary chat, almost as much as I did in have mine with Andrew Carnegie.

      I agree with most of what you say, and I too believe in democracy and in excellence. That’s why I said that I didn’t think that Andrew Carnegie would want to save the library in a 20th century construct. Let’s save our libraries and reinvent them at the same time – keep everything that is perfect about libraries (free, non judgemental, access to knowledge, information and learning) and improve them for the 21st century embracing more partnership with very local community groups and even better use of technology.

      • You may also agree that we must be wary of those who might be trading in evasions and also identify whether there could be any hint of self-interest, such as future marketing opportunities, at work when reading articles (I am generalising, not casting aspersions).

        To consign 20th century libraries to the bin of history and herald a “21st century construct” might tend to give a platform to consultants and private firms more readily than to the people who use and value their local university of the street corner. That new construct allows “partnership” to be a euphemism for volunteer-run book-exchanges in lieu of quality libraries – contrary to the public will – and “technology” to be a pretext for denying public access to a vast range of physical books, special collections, reading for pleasure, children’s Story Times, homework clubs, reading groups, the Reading Agency’s programmes. public-access computers and all human contact with knowledgeable paid staff.

        The “reinvention” you advocate must not be imposed willy nilly and will be challenged. It is the unique right of those for whom the service was established, comprising Mr Carnegie’s ‘ordinary people’ – in Lincolnshire, Moray, Sheffield, Herefordshire, Birmingham, Sunderland, Isle of Wight, Bolton, Brent, Croydon and Swindon, among others – to influence what type of library service they will ultimately get.

  5. 1996: public libraries, through Project EARL, start to provide internet access, later consolidated into the Peoples’ Network
    2013: lots of johnny-come-latelies, encouraged by a government which hates the idea of public provision and control of services, claim that libraries are old-fashioned and no longer relevant and that they can do far better, and by the way, could we have some money, as we’re exciting social enterprise entrepreneurs, not like those old fuddy-duddies

    • Yes it was very well received and caused a lot of buzz, agreeing with much of what’s being debated here on the blog – that we need and want libraries, and that great libraries (and great other community spaces) need to lead other less good libraries and community spaces to push themselves to be excellent. Excellent of course is excellent in the eyes of the people it serves.

  6. This feels very topical after a visit I paid to Reading Central Library this week to check out their adult learning activity – with special attention on digital skills (more on that matter to be read here: http://www.ukonlinecentres.com/media-centre/latest-news/item/1914.html).

    Not only does Reading Council use the library as a place for adults to learn in that perfect non-judgmental space, but I saw other community groups use the building for all manner of other activities. A local artists’ group were using the corridors and stair wells to display their work, a knitting group had congregated in one area and there was more than one person using the quite spaces to work at personal laptops without appearing to use the libraries books in their studies. It was obvious this library was already so much more than just the books in its shelves.

    I adored my local library as a child and I love seeing how much my young nieces and nephew love books, and how excited they are by the sheer numbers of stories held by the rows upon rows of them in the library (and in book shops and on nanan and grand-dad’s bookshelves). For me, the phone in my pocket, or a tablet or laptop will never be able replace this and I hope the same will be true for the next generation.

    Having said that, and as Helen says, the technology at our fingertips provides at least as much opportunity as access to libraries did for Carnegie. And those without easy access to tech, or the skills to use it are certainly held back by their own $2 charge.

    For libraries to remain an open space that feeds ambition and opportunity and knowledge for ALL, we MUST widen our understanding of what a library can be, how individuals and communities engage with them and the services we demand that they provide.

  7. I was born in a Library. Browsing in my uncles library ( he was a cleric) as a child was my favourite hobby. Now 40 years after qualifying as a medic I have come to the conclusion that NHS GP practice and Hospital practice has no enjoyable or creative future unless and until much of the vision that Helen has offered to us comes into being. As medics we urgently need the kind of library revolution that Helen describes. I am a Trustee at http://www.thephf.org. In the 1930s to 1948 offering health and social care information in a “convivial atmosphere” was just the normal day to day work of the “health professionals” at The Peckham Health Centre.

  8. Pingback: Round up | Alan Gibbons' Diary

  9. Pingback: Libraries News Round-up: 17th October 2013 | The Library Campaign

  10. Pingback: One for the books | Peak Perspective

  11. As a volunteer actually running a community-managed library, I can confirm that we can only offer a minimal service. The building has become a community hub, even offering computer classes, but we fumble along, trying to find funds to keep going and provide a service to the community in our amateur way. Is it better than nothing? Just. course, but it

  12. Hi Helen,
    Thanks for the post it’s good to know I’m not alone in thinking that libraries are one of the most exciting places to work today. Challenges demand brilliance as a response. Whilst I don’t think we’re brilliant just yet, indeed a reluctance to evolve will retard, I know that the future for libraries is smiling.
    As a volunteer for Library Camp (www.LibraryCamp.co.uk) I wouldn’t be doing my duty if I didn’t plug our event at Birmingham library (yes that one) on 30th Nov. 200+ librarians debating, devoting and even doubting libraries.
    Thanks again.
    P.S. I try not to get too rose tinted over Mr Carnegie. Let’s not forget he didn’t make his fortune being nice to people.

    • Hi Richard, that sounds like a great event. I’ll tweet a link to your Library Camp, as you say Libraries can evolve and that will be truly brilliant if those on the inside both doubt current efforts and drive that evolution. It would be great if one of my team could come to the Library Camp and be part of the conversation.

  13. Pingback: 21st Century Libraries – Are we there yet? | Helen Milner

  14. Pingback: Reimagining a LIbrary for the 21st Century | Helen Milner

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