The link below is to an article that takes a look at the top 10 libraries in fiction. Are there any that have been missed in your opinion? Should the library in the Sarah J. Maas ‘Throne of Glass’ series be included for example? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
The link below is to an article that reports on Macmillan placing an embargo on all ebooks to libraries.
How often do we hear that libraries aren’t just about books anymore? They are makerspaces with 3-D printers, scanners, laser vinyl cutters and routers. They provide green rooms, sewing machines, button makers, and tools like drills, saws and soldering irons. They are places to borrow seeds, fishing rods, cake making supplies, binoculars, laptops and tablets, radon detectors, musical instruments, bicycles and take-home wifi hotspots. They are important sites for learning with services dedicated to today’s newest literacies — coding, gaming, robotics and how to spot fake news.
There are consequences of these ideas and news that push books and reading to the margins in the commentary on the latest trends in public libraries.
One such consequence might be the disavowal of public librarians’ unique, professional knowledge base related to books and reading. Another might be the abdication of a mandate related to the promotion of reading as a social good.
Today’s libraries do build community, support healthy living, promote knowledge and provide space for city sanctuaries. But it is critical that libraries continue to be about books and reading, and that Canadians understand the high value of well-staffed, well-stocked and well-funded libraries.
The news isn’t that library services and programs have moved beyond books, it’s that public libraries are still very much about books.
I’m a researcher and educator in Library and Information Science, and I’ve been studying reading practices for nearly twenty years — those of teenagers, young adults and older adults. My research relies on the perspectives of people who like to read and choose to read for pleasure.
With my colleagues Catherine Ross and Lynne McKechnie at Western University, I’ve published two editions of a book about how reading matters to people, libraries and communities, and I talk about this work in two podcasts: Reading Still Matters and What Do You First Remember about Reading.
I am not lamenting that this is how libraries always have been and, therefore, always should be. Of course, libraries have never been only about books! But reading and books are more important than ever for contemporary society, and public libraries occupy a unique position as a public reading institution.
There are so many reasons why reading matters. As UCLA literacy scholar Maryanne Wolf so compellingly argues, learning how to read and the habits of deep reading connect in important ways to brain circuitry related to our capacities for critical thinking, empathy and reflection. Reading matters for the ways our brains develop, and being able to read deeply affects the way we think and feel. This has consequences for how we live our lives, but also for how we make judgements about the world and our places in it.
The habit of reading carries many other rewards, among them improved language acquisition and other literacy advantages, as well as therapeutic benefits related to mental wellbeing. We know that reading brings comfort to readers. One large-scale study even found that people who read books also live longer lives in which to read them.
In my research I’ve interviewed young adults about the role of reading in their lives. They told me that reading helps them to explore and understand their identities. It allows them to exercise autonomy and independence. Reading gives them knowledge and experience of the world which, in turn, shows them new possibilities for their own lives.
Reading among older adults can support resilience and contemplation, and conversations about reading can promote a reflective stance on one’s life.
Reading develops the brain. Reading helps us sort out who we are, and who we might become, throughout the entirety of our lives. Through reading we understand where other people are coming from too, including those with whom we disagree.
Reading connects us to people in communities that organize around and through reading. Reading gives us space and time to slow down, pause and contemplate even in these hypermediated times.
People learn to love reading by seeing others do it, by being mentored, by making voluntary choices about what to read and by reading themselves, over and over again. This is good news for us because we already have accessible sites in our communities that can support the reading habit — I’m talking about public libraries, of course.
The value of a librarian
Libraries are the only places where we can find educated workers who know about reading and genres, and who are trained in how to best connect readers with what they want to read. Public library systems also have wide and deep collections of reading materials in all formats that go beyond current bestsellers and dominant tastes of the purchasing public. Public libraries are places where people can go to make reading choices for whatever reasons they choose and for whatever ends, and without having to spend a dollar.
Reading generates community in public libraries through programming like book discussion groups, author readings, reader reviews and one-book-one-community events. Because public libraries do all this, they are one of the best supports for books and reading in our society. Depending on who you are, or where you live, public library systems might be your only, your best or your preferred option for getting reading materials. Even people who may never use libraries still think they are good for their communities.
As many people who think that books and reading turn people away from libraries, there are those who think books and reading are the library’s signature brand.
The most recent BookNet Canada annual survey found that 78 per cent of the adults surveyed had read a book in the past 12 months, and most read on a weekly or daily basis. And a study by the American-based non-profit Online Computer Library Center found that Canadians borrowed nearly twice as many books from public libraries than were purchased in bookstores.
Public libraries support a positive culture of reading by making reading materials available, accessible and connecting readers of all ages and with a variety of needs to books of all kinds.
So, let’s dispense with the tired idea of “libraries aren’t just about books anymore” and instead, celebrate how libraries are both about books and reading, and all the other myriad ways that they support literacy, learning, culture and community.
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For generations, libraries have helped people explore knowledge, information and culture. The invention of the public library meant more and more people got to use these collections and services.
In the digital age, a public library can connect even the most remote community to networks of knowledge and information. Today’s public libraries work to engage marginalised communities as users; pioneering projects like Townsville’s Murri Book Club explore ways to make the library meaningful to Indigenous people.
Despite all this, there is one area in which public libraries are underused. Libraries can also help us plan for the future.
Long-term planning is always challenging. It’s simply impossible to gather data from events that haven’t happened yet.
Sometimes we may detect trends, but these can fall apart under what some foresight experts call “TUNA conditions”, when we face Turbulence, Uncertainty, Novelty or Ambiguity.
Think of someone trying to predict that experiments with debt on Wall Street would lead to the global financial crisis and the political ripples that have followed. Think of trying, today, to foretell all the long-term consequences of climate change.
Enter scenario planning
That means we’ve had to find new ways to look at the unpredictable future. Big business has used scenario planning since the 1960s, when Pierre Wack pioneered the approach for Shell.
In scenario planning, people come together to imagine future settings that challenge how we currently think. You don’t judge a scenario’s value by whether it’s likely to happen: its value lies in helping us to rethink our assumptions about the future.
Shell’s scenarios became famous in the 1970s when the company successfully anticipated the oil crisis that followed the Yom Kippur War. Shell hadn’t predicted the conflict, but had imagined scenarios where Middle Eastern oil producers worked as a cartel to control global supply. When those countries did start an oil embargo, scenario planning meant Shell had already thought through this possibility ahead of its competitors.
Today, experts thinking about the future acknowledge the need for engagement from the bottom up as well as top down. For example, the European Union’s new proposal for “mission-oriented innovation” aims to get all of us focused on solving society’s problems. In turbulent times, it’s important that at every level of society we strengthen our ability to imagine the future that awaits us – and our own future choices.
What is libraries’ role in this?
This chimes with the finding of research at the University of Southern Queensland, in support of a new vision for public libraries, that public libraries are a grassroots connector of people, ideas and resources:
Public library services are built on relationships, not just transactions; they are entwined with the specific and deeply local context of everyday life in the communities they serve.
Locally held scenario planning sessions, convened by communities at their public library, would make use of the library’s existing capacity to connect people – but this time with the goal of helping us reimagine the future.
Librarians would work with their local council to identify issues that call for a long-term perspective. Should we invest in “smart” tech for our small country towns? How much should we rely on recycled water or desalination in the big coastal cities?
Librarians would provide background research and host community workshops to develop local scenarios. People would start to have deeper, richer discussions about the future: there’s a reason scenarios have been called “the art of strategic conversation”.
The scenario process depends on bringing together a group of individuals in a trusted space, with enough information to give the scenarios detail and flavour. In a local community, the public library is that place of trust and information.
Much as public librarians use their skills to help with job seeking or support people’s health and well-being, as scenario planners they would apply their talents to a new domain.
Conversations that could transform politics
Playful events we have run in collaboration with Ann Arbor Public Library in Michigan, to capture the attention of children as well as adults, have begun to engage local people with the notion of the long-term future. The next step is to develop a more rigorous and substantive conversation.
If public libraries were supported to deliver strategic foresight to their communities, politics could transform. The electorate would be better informed, thinking deeper and further ahead about political issues. Councils could take decisions with confidence that the community had been consulted about the long-term consequences.
Scenarios would offer a playbook of potential futures, already imagined and rehearsed. Every Australian could have access to the kind of foresight tools that have been informing the decisions of government and big business for the past half century.
Imagine the conversations we, as a country, would be having about our future if we democratised those tools via the local library.
The link below is to an article containing a number of brief book reviews concerning books looking at the importance of libraries in Jewish history.
Last year two Danish librarians – Christian Lauersen and Marie Eiriksson – founded Library Planet: a worldwide, crowdsourced, online library travel guide. According to them, Library Planet is meant to inspire travellers “to open the awesome book that is our world of libraries, cities and countries”.
The name of the online project is a deliberate nod to the Australian-made Lonely Planet. The concept is simple and powerful. Library lovers contribute library profiles and images from their travels; the founders then curate and publish the posts, with the ambition of capturing library experiences and library attractions from around the world.
Why make libraries a focus of travel? There are a thousand practical and aesthetic reasons, as well as cultural ones. Libraries for the most part are safe and welcoming places. And they tell unique stories about the people who build and appreciate them. If books are the basic data of civilisation, then nations’ libraries provide windows on national souls. They are precious places in which to seek traces of the past, and reassurance about the future.
Library Planet now has dozens of intriguing profiles – including from Burma, Iceland, Tanzania and French Polynesia. A recent entry celebrated the Melbourne Cricket Club library at the MCG. The site has rapidly become a favourite among the bibliographical communities and subcultures of Instagram and Twitter, such as #rarebooks, #amreading and #librarylove.
The Grand Tour – of libraries
Library Planet may be new, but library tourism has been around a long time. In the Western Renaissance, Italian humanists visited derelict monastic libraries throughout Europe to rescue the unique manuscripts that had fallen into mouldy neglect in the late Middle Ages. In the 18th century, old libraries were a focus of the Grand Tour, and the subject of a rich travel literature.
Not all visits went smoothly. The author and historian Friedrich Hirsching called the directors of Germany’s public libraries “arrogant misanthropes who look upon their positions as sinecures”.
Well into the 19th century, people were still touring libraries and they were still rescuing manuscripts. In 1843, the bibliographer Obadiah Rich wrote to the bibliophile Sir Thomas Phillipps:
More manuscripts are destroyed by ignorant people than by civil wars. I once found a bookseller at Madrid occupied in taking off the parchment covers from a large pile of old folios and throwing them into his cellar to sell by weight to the grocers: I opened one, and immediately bought the whole (120 volumes) at about two shillings per volume: you will hardly believe that among them was one of the most precious volumes in your collection; a volume of original documents relating to England in the time of Philip the second!
The era of the biblio-treasure hunt extended, Indiana-Jones style, into the 20th century. In the spring of 1910, villagers were digging for fertiliser at the site of the destroyed Monastery of the Archangel Michael, in Egypt’s Fayyum oasis, near present-day Hamuli. In an old stone cistern the villagers found 60 Coptic manuscripts. Evidently, early in the tenth century, the monks had buried the monastery’s entire library for safekeeping, shortly before the monastery closed for good.
Written in Sahidic (a Coptic dialect) and ranging in date from 823 to 914 AD, the manuscripts formed the oldest, largest and most important group of early Coptic texts with a single provenance.
Dealers and bibliographers relished the discovery. Soon the illustrious American banker and bibliophile J. P. Morgan would buy most of the manuscripts, and they are now among the treasures that visitors can see at New York’s extraordinary biblio-temple, the Morgan Library and Museum.
A modern pilgrimage to old libraries
In 2017, my wife Fiona and I retraced the steps of some of the first library tourers. With our two young daughters (aged five and one at the time), we visited libraries in Switzerland, such as the spectacular Abbey Library of St Gall (Sankt Gallen), a former monastery, and the handsome Zentralbibliothek in Zurich. In Britain, we called on the Bodleian Library, the Wellcome Library, Lambeth Palace Library, University College Library and the irreplaceable British Library.
Our library touring also took us to North America, Asia, Oceania and major state and regional libraries in Australia. Visiting institutions like the Morgan, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Libraries, Harvard’s Widener and Houghton libraries, the New York Public Library, the Boston Public Library, the National Library of Australia, the state libraries of Victoria and NSW and national and university libraries in China and Indonesia and New Zealand; these were life-changing experiences.
Which libraries were our favourites? A few institutions stand out as having done everything right: beautiful, welcoming buildings; important and accessible holdings; and internal spaces designed for future scholars as well as current ones. Prominent members of this Goldilocks category include the Boston Athenaeum Library, the NYPL, the Folger Shakespeare Library and its larger Washingtonian neighbours.
In 2018, the four of us embarked on another library tour, this time of Japan. We sought out major libraries and everyday ones. An example from the first category is Japan’s principal public library, the National Diet Library. (The Diet is Japan’s national parliament.) The Tokyo Main Library in Chiyoda, a civic and parliamentary precinct, is the Diet Library’s principal site. It serves members of parliament and is also open to members of the public, who must register before entering.
The building itself features boarded concrete beams, stained glass and chunky tiles. The “high brutalist” style reminded us of a Dr Who set. The library is rich in Japanese and foreign literature, rare books and manuscripts, technical and official volumes and a multitude of other holdings. The total collection numbers in the tens of millions of items, making it one of the world’s largest and most important.
Also in the Chiyoda district, the building that houses the National Archives of Japan is a poignant place that contains Japan’s foundational documents, such as the decree that changed the city of Edo to Tokyo; the documents that returned to Japan its sovereignty after post-war occupation; and those that returned to Japan the ownership of Okinawa.
Children need special permission to enter the Tokyo Main Library – special permission that my daughters did not have. But a few suburbs north of Chiyoda, in the cultural precinct near Ueno Park, is the excellent International Library of Children’s Literature. Visitors can access this library without charge and without a library card.
Another priority for our visit was on the hilly, green outskirts of Tokyo. A private university, Meisei University is home to the world’s second largest collection of Shakespeare First Folios. (The Folger has by far the largest collection. The New York Public Library and the British Library are among the small number of institutions that also hold multiple copies.) In addition to its cache of First Folios, Meisei also possesses other early Shakespeare editions, and much else of Shakespearean interest including artworks and artefacts.
Kyoto, the former capital of Japan, is a city of libraries. Many of its beautiful old buildings and neighbourhoods have been preserved. Those neighbourhoods are peppered with large and small libraries, such as the Kyoto Library of Historical Documents, the Kyoto Prefecture Library, the Kansai Library (another branch of the National Diet Library) and the glorious temple of pulp: the Manga Museum.
All hail the librarian
So what did we learn from all this library touring? Reports of the death of the library are certainly exaggerated. People, including young people, continue to use and appreciate libraries. People are still investing in libraries, and they are still buying and reading books. But the libraries and their custodians are engaged in hot battles on multiple fronts, including the fight against underfunding and creeping volunteerism, and the epochal clash between analogue and digital content.
Libraries as physical spaces have been transformed. Library architecture is a wonderful site of experimentation. (Great examples include the new Library of Alexandria, China’s amazing Tianjin Binhai Library, the University of Zurich’s ultra-modern Law Faculty library, and the stylish Melton Library and Learning Hub in Victoria.) Library spaces now permit an expansive variety of uses, including noisy and smelly ones. As welcoming, non-commercial and non-judgemental “third spaces”, libraries are increasingly serving a generous variety of pro-social purposes.
In their curation and display of books and manuscripts, comics and posters and realia, libraries are telling rich and important stories – about women’s rights, LGBTIQ rights, civil rights, counter-culture movements, climate change and the crimes of history. Libraries and librarians are contributing to social inclusion directly and in practical ways, such as by helping people write their CVs, and by lending ties, handbags and briefcases for job interviews.
In our world of gobbling capitalism and pervasive consumerism, libraries continue to be founded on humanism. The diverse roles of libraries as places of education and participation are becoming more urgent each day. Libraries are part of our knowledge system and our civic and social infrastructure; their accessibility is meant to transcend class, race, gender, sexuality and all the other classifications that elsewhere can divide us. Not everyone, though, has got the memo.
In all the battles about what libraries are for and who can use them, librarians are in the trenches, fighting the good fight. Both on-line and in-world, the latest renaissance of library appreciation has naturally seen much respect and affection directed towards librarians, who for the most part are certainly not “arrogant misanthropes”, and who generally don’t conform to the bookish, shushing stereotype.
But in this new world of library love, librarians also need personal space. They emphatically don’t want random kisses or hugs or cakes. They want you to use their libraries, relish their services, and listen to what their collections and resources say about our collective past, present and future.
If libraries didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them
In the curation and mobilisation of collections and resources, librarians are making the best of our digital future, without discarding our analogue past (though many rightly bemoan the loss of physical card catalogues and the tangible, fractal, serendipitous experiences that came with them).
Rare and fragile books are being digitised on a massive scale; scandalous and hitherto hidden books are being let out; and librarians are helping to curate and navigate the messy, unbounded and uncooperative soup that we call the internet.
Librarians are also welcoming library tourists as well as regular users and other visitors. In 2016, the New York Public Library reportedly hosted 18 million visitors – many of them from other municipalities, states and countries. That same year, the National Library of China, the largest library in Asia, welcomed 5.6 million visitors. Our very own domed library, the wonderful State Library of Victoria, is also among the world’s most visited libraries. According to that institution’s latest annual report, the library hosted precisely 1,937,643 visitors last year, and had more than twice as many on-line interactions.
Glue or gum?
Is there a downside to all this visiting? Are we just setting up another tension, in which libraries are victims of their own success, and locals compete with tourists for library space and time? Could our best libraries come to resemble parts of Amsterdam and Venice: pseudo-historical theme-parks; mere caricatures of civic spaces, more for tourists than for locals? Could the “social glue” of libraries be replaced by tourists’ discarded chewing gum?
At showcase libraries such as St Gall and the Library of Congress, tourists are in the majority, but those libraries are fully ready for them – and their gum. In our more humble municipal libraries, the library tourists certainly don’t outnumber the locals, but there is definitely tension between the demands of different types of library users. Nevertheless, I’m optimistic about the future, in part because those tensions are exactly what librarians are deft at resolving.
I’m optimistic, too, because of the progressive and truth-telling roles that libraries are increasingly playing. In Japan, the National Library and the National Archives tell candid and affecting stories about Japan and its fraught modern history. In the US and the UK, libraries such as the Houghton and the British Library have infinite potential to be crusty and excluding. But instead, through exhibitions of books, posters, artefacts and artwork, they are telling diverse stories from marginalised voices about the fight for fairness and social inclusion. These are stories and voices that everyone should hear.
Who exactly are libraries for? Much of the history of libraries is concerned with matters of access. In British and European libraries, for example, people have been shut out at different times based on their gender, class, age, nationality and religion. Each of these exclusions has been, in its turn, the subject of hot debate. But all the arguments have landed us in a good place: today’s library ethos of openness and welcome.
The modern library is a humanist project, founded on inclusion rather than division. Today, it is possible for libraries to be islands of humanity. In the future, if we are unlucky, they might become its warehouses. But with luck, they’ll be its wellsprings.
A lack of diverse books is failing children from minority backgrounds. This is something that should concern all Australians.
I studied five Australian early learning settings and found less than 5% of books contained cultural diversity. My more recent findings show educators are struggling to use books in ways that promote intercultural understandings.
Diverse books can help achieve principles of diversity written into Australian education polices. The potential of diverse books in addressing these principles and equity more generally is too important to ignore.
How books impact little readers socially and academically
Reading to children has a powerful impact on their academic and intellectual development. Children learn about themselves and the world through the books they’re exposed to. Importantly, children can learn understanding and respect for themselves and for those who are different to them.
But a lack of diverse books means we have a serious problem. Currently, children from minority backgrounds rarely see themselves reflected in the books they’re exposed to. Research over the last two decades shows the world presented in children’s books is overwhelmingly white, male and middle class.
For children from minority groups, this can lead to a sense of exclusion. This can then impact on their sense of identity and on their educational and social outcomes.
Stereotypes and misrepresentation
The evidence regarding Indigenous groups across the world is even more alarming. Research shows these groups are rarely represented. And, if represented at all, are most likely to be represented in stereotypical or outdated ways.
Many educators or adults unwittingly promote stereotypical, outdated or exotic views of minority groups. This can damage the outcomes for children from those groups. Children from dominant cultural groups can view themselves as “normal” and “others” as different.
In my recent study, I found the book collections in early childhood settings were overwhelmingly monocultural. Less than 5% of the books contained any characters who were not white. And in those few books, the minority group characters played a background role to a white main character.
Particularly concerning was the lack of representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Of 2,377 books, there were only two books available to children that contained Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander characters. Only one of these was a story book.
In this book, the Aboriginal character was portrayed as a semi-naked person playing a didgeridoo in the outback. There were no books showing actual everyday lifestyles or views of Aboriginal people.
Teachers are uncertain
The accompanying practice of teachers may also be counterproductive to achieving equitable outcomes for children from minority backgrounds. The teachers in my study were keen and committed to the children in their care. They were passionate about the importance of reading to children. But when it came to selecting books, they struggled to know what books to select and how best to use them.
Other research has found similar uncertainty among teachers. Some teachers overlooked the importance of diversity altogether. Some saw diversity as a special extra to address occasionally rather than an essential part of everyday practice.
How can we make bookshelves more diverse?
The call for more diverse booksfor children is gaining momentum around the world. The value of diverse books for children’s educational, social and emotional outcomes is of interest to all.
The voices of Aboriginal and minority group writers calling for change are gaining momentum. But there is still much to be done.
The recent development of a database from the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literacy is an important step. Publications of diverse books are still very much in the minority but some awareness and promotion of diverse books is increasing.
These important steps forward could be supported with better training for teachers and increased discussion among those who write, publish and source books for children. Here are five tips to help you build a more diverse book collection.
Educators and parents can strive to create libraries of inclusive books. This can ensure every child has the opportunity to achieve the substantial benefits we know books can bring. Here are five book titles to get you started on building a more diverse collection of books.
When we share diverse books with children, they gain opportunities to see themselves reflected and affirmed. Importantly we broaden children’s perspectives and understandings of those that are different to themselves.
This supports children to value others as unique and equal individuals.
Inclusive book collections which depict and affirm a diverse range of children, will contribute to equitable outcomes for all children.
The link below is to an article and infographic that takes a look at libraries in the digital age.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at some of the oldest libraries in the world.