Palaces for the people

I read a really interesting interview in The Economist this morning with Eric Klineberg, author of a forthcoming book, Palaces for the people. (Before I go on, the link quoted sits behind a paywall. I have a free trial subscription to The Economist, which is how I came to read this article. I try not to link to articles which are not publicly available, but this one I thought exceptionally interesting. The article includes an excerpt from the book. There is also a Google preview of the book, available here .)

The author says about libraries

Libraries play an especially important role in promoting democratic culture—and challenging authoritarianism—because of the way they are staffed, managed and programmed. They are radically inclusive. They are governed by professionals who abide by powerful vocational norms: pursuing knowledge with the best tools at our disposal; being non-judgmental; respecting the dignity of all persons; maintaining privacy; treating everyone, regardless of social class, race, ethnicity, age, ability or citizenship status as equals. If, on one side of the battlefield, demagogues and tech titans are pushing us towards a post-truth era, on the other, librarians are pushing back. [ … ] But I fear that we are starving our libraries just when we most need them.

While libraries appear to be in the gun sights of local government and university administrators, they are popular with the punters, and not just oldies like me. The interview refers to some Pew research data that found about 50% of millennials in the United States have used a library in the previous 12 months. This makes them the group most likely to use libraries. (This research is available in full text thanks to a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. So, a shout-out to them.)

Of course, by “libraries”, the Pew report and Klineberg are mostly talking about public libraries. University libraries, actually, are more open than one might think, although this was not publicised. Anyone could walk in and read at RMIT library. A library card giving borrowing access to books was available for a fee. (This card did not include access to online databases or e-books.)

As a footnote, people did make use of the library in surprising ways. There were one or two who used to hide during the nightly clearing process, unroll a sleeping bag, and have a kip between a couple of rows of shelves. An attendant was once clearing the library following a fire alarm or bomb threat (I can’t remember which). He found a little girl sitting quietly at one of the desks. When he asked her whether she had a parent in the library, she explained that her mother had left her there and told her not to move. The attendant had no choice but to take the girl with him to the evacuation point. When she was reunited with her by now rather distraught mother, the latter explained that she had thought the library was a safe place to leave her daughter for a while while she went to an appointment nearby. (This was a bit like leaving a child unattended in Myer or David Jones.)

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