Two interesting articles caught my attention this week. The first by philosopher Roger Scruton in which he argues that education should not be left to teachers and the state and advocates that a variety of individuals and bodies should contribute to the overall learning and education of children. The second shows the worrying reading divide in England and the negative socio-economic impact this can have for non-readers.
This raises the issue of what the educational role of libraries should be, not simply as an abstract question but a real and fundamental challenge as to who we are and what we do, particularly around the principles of widening access, opportunity, and helping disadvantaged individuals and communities.
Traditionally libraries have always prided themselves on providing access to knowledge and learning but slowly – exacerbated by the current austerity programme – this principle is being eroded.
Many decision makers see libraries as subordinate to a wider leisure agenda, with reading viewed as a ‘past-time’ for the middle-classes rather than an essential skill for all, while nationally ACE continuously tries to push an arts agenda onto libraries. Worse still, many see libraries as little more than book-swaps, needing limited professional input, or as a shop front for other council services.
This is not the evolution of the library movement towards modernity, as some would have it, but rather a degradation of its original purpose, which is the opportunity of learning for all.
For me, the true mission of the library movement lies in promoting education in its broadest sense through the provision of a dynamic learning environment. This should be the guiding principle of all we do.
In a constantly changing social, economic and technological environment libraries are ideally placed to alleviate the effects of deprivation and disadvantage by acting as hubs for community learning and helping individuals update skills and knowledge. Equally, learning can alleviate the sense of exclusion and isolation that many young people feel about society, feelings that played a large part in the riots of 2011.
Rather than endeavouring to mould us into their image ACE should recognise that libraries have a different character and remit and should manage and provide funding accordingly. Instead of bids based around art projects they should support educational initiatives and partnerships, particularly around the universal offers. They should also encourage more development between public libraries, schools, colleges and universities, of which the Hive in Worcester is a shining example. Similar ideas are explored in The university of the public library.
Libraries can be many things delivering many different types of opportunity – see 10 ideas to reinvent the library by Francesca Wakefield – they can support business and innovation, job information, health information, digital inclusion, and social cohesion, but most of all – reflecting both their founding principles and core mission – they should remain places of knowledge, learning, and education.
Update: Interesting post from Ian Clark questioning the results of the reading divide survey.