I was traveling on the train from York to Lancaster today. The conversation I had with the man across from me triggered this post, I think because it got me a little worked up, brought out my passion a bit. So now I’m going to share some of that with you
Our conversation started out the usual way – where are we from? are we on holiday? – but quickly moved to my job and my research area. My fellow traveller said that he found public libraries had nothing of value for him, that university libraries were more relevant. Fair enough, he works at a university. But as we continued talking, it was his lack of understanding or realization as to what a public library does and can do that got me a little worked up.
He was open to listening so I must admit I gave a bit of a lecture.
I spoke about libraries and their role in life long learning. I talked about the importance of libraries in helping to build and sustain literacy skills. He said he found it hard to believe that there were still people ‘in this day and age, in this country’ that struggle to read and write or struggle to use technology – ‘every one had a smartphone at least’. I was pretty clear: there are still people with low literacy skills. With the increasing level of literacy (and kinds of literacies) required to function in our society, if anything the literacy divide is larger and the barriers now are greater.
As governments and other organizations move to primarily or even solely online services, those people without access to computers, printers, or without the knowledge of how to use them are left behind. The public library is a place to learn, practice, take risks, and fail sometimes. It is a critical service and resource.
The public library is the people’s university. Trite sounding, I know, but as I think about what a university purports to do, it seems to fit. Like a university, the public library is a place to be creative, to try new things, to debate, discuss, and learn. It serves that role in community. There is nowhere else that does that as broadly and in the same freely accessible non-judgmental way.
I hope that what I said made an impact. I’ll never know – but I’m glad my inner librarian surfaced. Unless people are users of libraries they don’t always understand the important role libraries play in supporting a society in which people are informed and active participants.