Tuesday, 30 April 2013

David Pearson’s Foxcroft Lecture (1) Big, Bigger, Biggest

Philip Harvey

“Once the value or quality of a public library was determined by its size or the number of books and records it held.” This innocent-looking claim opens ABC Radio National’s online coverage of this year’s Foxcroft Lecture. It introduces us to the broadcast of the lecture given by David Pearson, the former president of the Bibliographical Society and currently Director of Culture, Heritage and Libraries for the City of London Corporation. It caught my eye because the claim is unsubstantiated, it is fallacious, a misleading idea about public libraries based on the notion that bigger is better. Although the sentence is more likely to have come from a colourful “eye-catching” journalist than a Director of Libraries, it points up an historical assumption we live with, through no fault of our own. It is one that librarians could spend more time overturning, if only they had the time. While the uninitiated may agree with the claim, librarians and regular library users would reword the sentence thus: “Once the value or quality of a public library was determined by the value, quality, breadth and depth of its books and records.”  Only secondarily were the size and number of items regarded as an important factor in its value or quality.

David Pearson himself is more subtle in his actual discussion of library size, as we would expect. He makes no bones of the fact that his subject is as much about money as heritage, about online and its discontents. What is it about libraries, he asks, “which makes them worth investing in as recipients of public money, as an ongoing burden on the public purse?” Clearly, substantively, he lives in contemporary Britain, where loaded questions like this are the air they breathe. When he talks about public lending libraries needing to diversify, he means diversify or die.

We have to watch him carefully when Pearson starts talking about national libraries, art and medical libraries, and other big humanities libraries. “These kinds of libraries have grown up around a core concept of libraries as storehouses and quarries of knowledge or ideas, held in books and other documentary formats. Human endeavour of many kinds, including education, research, invention, business and leisure, has always depended to some extent on access to information, or on what other people have known or said, and for many centuries books have been the containers for holding and transmitting these things. Books were created to be communication devices for texts, and libraries evolved to store, organise and make them accessible in large quantities.” Size in this case matters precisely because the collections are “authoritative, cumulative and trustworthy places.” Unlike his casual attitude to public libraries, he is not questioning the need to protect these other kinds of big libraries. His argument is therefore somewhat contrary, with its implication that some users are more equal than others.

Because the library, especially from the 18th century onward, played the crucial role of  preserving the wisdom and record of the past, “the value of libraries has therefore often been measured in terms of the size of their stock; more books means a greater reservoir, more comprehensiveness of coverage.” Comprehensiveness is a reason for why we have bigger libraries, despite ourselves sometimes. But while size matters, it is not the reason people use libraries. They use libraries to find the works they cannot find anywhere else, the works of one kind that are housed in one library but not another, the works that, whether available in digital or not, the user still wants in print form. Quality trumps quantity, need overrides pretension. Comprehensiveness, as well as concision, is the driving force.  

Information technology and the Internet have changed the way libraries work, as if we didn’t know. But the thinking that insists they have undermined the need, the requirement in fact, for print collections, needs to be questioned. Pearson seems happy to go along with the idea that the physical size of libraries has been replaced by your handheld device. Book content can now be downloaded, goes the logic, so let’s reduce libraries, or even close them completely. It is an easy argument in the hands of politicians who want to cut costs, but it ignores many of the reasons for why we have libraries, whether print, digital, or both, and cannot answer the great unknown, which is whether the information technology delivers comprehensive everything in the same ways as a library. It is economic rationalism taken to its ridiculous and bitter extreme: if it costs something, shut it down. The size argument carries in fact a threatening supposition. If it’s big and useless, knock it down. Also around the edges of the argument is the implication, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Why so few people are questioning the meanings behind the argument is worth pondering.

I don’t for a minute think that David Pearson wishes an end to print libraries. We are unquestionably learning to manage “the hybrid and transitional nature of the world we are living in.” Our libraries are certainly having to diversify, working with e-resources of all kinds, rethinking the library as a social space, and improving information literacy for its users. (These things, by the way, are not new: they are just extensions of the original expectations of librarians.) But once we lose sight of the benefits of access and depth of our collections, thinking that the technology has replaced it, we have lost sight our own purposes in having libraries. Anyone can see that a Stack outweighs a Kindle, but why is this an argument for disposing of your Stack? And since when do we read handhelds in the same way we browse libraries? Placing Stack and Kindle on a scale to see how they tip on the fulcrum ignores many questions about the value and quality of our collections, too many to list here. 

David Pearson is not himself advocating that libraries should throw books away. At least he doesn’t seem to be going out of his way to say such things. But therein, I think, lies the dilemma that faces all of us today. Print versus Digital, Library versus Online: these are black and white arguments. They argue an either/or position which can too easily be accepted as gospel by decision-makers and the uninformed. The net effect on libraries is potentially disastrous, if not actually tragic. Meanwhile, I find that most every reader I know does not share this view of the modern reading experience. They are realistic followers of the both/and position. We are in the enviable place at present of benefitting from all media and all outlets for those media. There are things that our libraries do much better than our IT, and vice versa. But once we lose the libraries, we cannot have them back.

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