Right now a controversy is raging in the United Kingdom, as many readers will know, about the future of public libraries. Libraries, under threat from funding cuts being experienced by local authorities, have become a kind of icon in the struggle to find a new kind of society that maintains decent values and is yet affordable in these straightened times. And yet, a vox pop survey carried out the other day by a British radio station on a typical English high street did not come up with a single passer-by who had been inside the local library within the previous month.
This finding was on my mind when I met a small group of students who were proposing to interview me for a student magazine. In passing I asked them how often they used their university library. Of the five present, one said he used it very frequently, another said he was there occasionally (principally just before an exam), and the other three could not recall when they had last been in it. ‘It’s all on the web now,’ one of them offered.
I don’t know of any academic who would not put in a spirited defence of their library and of the need to resource it generously. And yet, how many of them use it? Is it that we are addicted to nostalgia that keeps us from making realistic judgements, or are we right to defend libraries even though many have lost the knack of using it?
No doubt some of this depends on what subject is being studied or researched, but in the end I would be aghast at the idea of leaving behind the idea of the university library as the heart of the intellectual community. But it may be the case that we need to re-conceptualise it, and gain a batter understanding of how a library, as a centre for books, information technology and other resources, can be at the centre of learning and scholarship today. If we don’t do this and do it well, it will not be long before someone starts to think of the library as an unnecessary extravagance; and then we will really have lost something.