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:
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.
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.