The future of libraries – no books, no knowledge

The Carnegie UK Trust has published its final report in its Enterprising Libraries series, a project aimed at making libraries more fundable by having them offer services that promote ‘economic wellbeing’. The report, Beyond Books: The Role of Enterprising Libraries in Promoting Economic Wellbeing, is the culmination of this project and offers recommendations for best practice.

The report is based on four case studies: Gateshead Central Library, which runs a few digital-career days and volunteer-led computer-coding clubs; Neath Port Talbot libraries, which hold ‘technoclubs’ to encourage local students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); Northamptonshire libraries, which run ‘enterprise hubs’ where library users can find out about self-employment opportunities; and, last but not least, The Waiting Room in Colchester, which, strictly speaking, isn’t a library at all – it’s a room (no books, no magazines, not even a PC) in which people can meet to ‘borrow and lend knowledge and skills’. These are the cutting-edge innovations that are meant to lead the way for the future of libraries. 

Beyond Books is a depressing testament to the ignorance, philistinism and cowardice embodied by modern libraries. This is made all the more pertinent by the fact that the Carnegie UK Trust was central to the establishment of public libraries in the UK. Between 1883 and 1929, the trust helped establish over 660 public libraries in the UK and Ireland. These were libraries filled with a range of books and staffed by librarians who saw themselves as custodians of public archives – people with professional expertise and literary interests they brought to their work. The trust helped establish quiet places across the country for the public to read and think. No longer was this a dispensable luxury – for the first time, normal people were treated as thinking individuals; people with a wide range of interests and passions that lay beyond the demands or stresses of the job market, or, in today’s parlance, their ‘economic wellbeing’.

The report begins with a familiar warning: ‘Public-spending cuts are changing the physical landscape, governance models and staffing of the public-library service.’ But rather than responding to this challenge by remaking the case for public libraries, even in economically uncertain times, this report throws in the towel. It urges libraries to reach out, expand their remit and cater to the public’s ‘wellbeing’ rather than the public’s intellectual appetites.

This report embodies the library sector’s newfound contempt for the public, for librarians and for knowledge (which, unlike information, cannot be ‘borrowed and shared’ in some enterprise hub). It is an invitation for libraries to sign their own death warrants.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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