In praise of the Big Library

: has Philip Pullman got it wrong?

Few librarians could fail to be inspired by Philip Pullman's address to the Library Campaign's conference. His passionate support for libraries and librarians expressed in such his speech "Consider the context" will surely rank as a key text for the library profession and we hope for society at large. It points out that there is a context to all this talk of "Save our libraries". Saving libraries, argues Pullman, is not about saving libraries - it is about saving society.

The speech was especially welcome coming as it did shortly after publication of a comment piece in The Telegraph by John McTernan. This questioned the need for libraries in a modern society; suggesting that rather like horse troughs they had served a useful function in the past, for which we should all be grateful, but were not needed today.

But despite that - or possibly because of that - we should not take everything that Pullman said uncritically. The bit that I want to take issue with is his statement "It would be far more sensible to close the big libraries and open even more small ones" I don't want to suggest he was entirely wrong to say this but to point out that we need to examine that idea in more detail.

First, in deference to the title of the talk, we must examine the context. The full paragraph reads:

This is why Brent and the other local authorities who want to close lots of small libraries in favour of fewer much bigger ones are wrong. It's a bad policy. It would be far more sensible to close the big libraries and open even more small ones. If Kensal Rise Library is still open, if Blackbird Leys in Oxford still has a library within walking distance of the people who live there, if hundreds of other libraries all over the country are kept open and properly staffed, then readers can reach pretty well any book they want to with the help of the inter-library loan system

To some extent the line about closing big libraries is a rhetorical riposte to the plan to close small libraries. It is based on the idea that many people need convenient local access to libraries if they are going to be able to use them. Pullman is also aware (as so many commentators on libraries are not) of the interconnectedness of libraries through the Inter Library Loan system).

The point I want to make is that there should be two elements. First there has to be a good library service and this is a function of size. There has to be a range and a depth of book stock. There has to be a sufficient number of library professionals with a range of specialisms. We need to offer a full range of activities and services to meet the diverse needs of our users. The service is not the same as an individual library building. It is not even the same as a library authority. As Pullman points out individual libraries and library authorities do work together to provide a service.

The second element is how to deliver this service to the people who desire to make use of it. As Pullman makes clear, many people, especially families with young children, will be unable to use the service if local small libraries are closed. On the other hand there are also many people (and John McTernan is probably an example of this group) who are unable to use the library not because of physical access but because the quality of the provision is not what they need. If the library does not offer the full range and depth of materials and services then they are just as excluded as the young child or family who can't afford the bus fares.

Pullman's point is that the network of small libraries is an access point to the larger service and so it should be - but as professional librarians we know this is not always the case. A dozen small libraries are likely to duplicate a fairly limited range of books and even a functioning ILL system does not completely overcome this. The user will not be exposed to the full range of titles on the shelves, there will be a delay in obtaining items and in some cases the user will have to pay a charge for obtaining books from outside the library service - undermining the concept of a free public library.

Large, modern central libraries can provide an in-depth book stock, specialist information services (e.g. business, science & technology, health etc.), a wide range of literature in English and other languages, specialist journals, archives, a range of activities, professional library staff and extended opening hours seven days a week. People who want and need these services will make a special journey to access the library. We are right to be concerned about those people who find physical access is difficult but I do not believe that we are doing ourselves or our customers any favours by not having these centres of excellence. Our communities deserve excellence as well as access and it is our responsibility to deliver both.

I believe in the concept of a big library. I believe that there is a synergy in a single large library that you do not get with a network of smaller libraries. Yes, I know that in theory you can go into the small local library and find what you want on the catalogue or with the help of professional staff, but it is just not the same.

Of course, what we want is both and I genuinely believe that the benefit to a community of such a library system far exceeds the cost. However, we all know that many library managers are being faced with the reality of having to deliver a quality library services with inadequate funding. I believe that as professionals we do need to come up with a realistic way of maintaining a service in the face of unreasonable cuts and that keeping a large number of small libraries open is not of itself better than a smaller number of bigger libraries. First develop the service, then deliver it as appropriate.