Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Public Libraries: The Changing Face of the Public Library

Penny Garrod looks at developments in Hampshire and comments on the shape of things to come.

It has been said that people only value that which they fear they are about to lose, and the traditional library and its books are no exception. The library as a quiet place full of books is, in many cases, giving way to the multi-purpose community centre featuring multimedia resources, cybercafés, ranks of computers, and even crèches. However, this trend, as exemplified in Idea Stores and Discovery Centres is not welcomed by everyone. The new centres tend to be busier, noisier places, and there are those who cherish the quiet space, books on shelves and solemn dignity of the traditional library. As for books, there are claims that they are being marginalised in these new community centres; bookshelves are being removed to make space for cafés and rows of computers, and book budgets are being cut to pay for electronic resources. These arguments tend to go round and round. But public libraries are having to modernise; they cannot, in the words of Yinnon Ezra, Director of Recreation and Heritage at Hampshire County Council, be allowed to ‘wither on the vine’ - but more on this later.

Public libraries were criticised a few years back for the poor quality of their bookstock. In 2002 the Audit Commission [1] argued that libraries should “buy more of the books people want, and make them available when they want them.” The commission suggested that libraries should aim to emulate high street bookshops, by offering users a wide range of popular titles. However, consider this:

”.. libraries should not be defined by the equipment they provide nor the stock of materials on their shelves. Framework for the Future suggests that libraries should be measured by the services they deliver, the experiences they enable and the environment they create.” [2]

This is from Overdue, a report by the independent think-tank, Demos, which was published shortly after Framework for the Future 3. Charles Leadbetter, author of Overdue, argues that the role of libraries is to:

”…promote equality of opportunity in a society in which knowledge, ideas and information are increasingly important in work and hobbies, as a source of individual identity and a focus for a sense of community.” (page 15)

Libraries in the Media: the Idea Store

Libraries and books appear to be newsworthy and when they are deemed to be under threat the media take an even greater interest. In March 2003 BBC News Online carried an article by Megan Lane entitled “Is this the library of the future?” [4] The word ‘library’ is set ‘to fade from our vocabulary’ we are told, but this is not because we have ‘fallen out of love with books’. On the contrary, it is as a result of libraries being refurbished and re-branded; or, in media speak, being given a ‘makeover’. Lane is referring to the library in Bow, East London, which is now an ‘Idea Store’. On entering the ‘Idea Store’ [5], she informs us, you will not encounter ‘stern librarians’ or ‘shelves of books’, but a café. Books do exist, but they are located ‘around the corner, en route to the children’s play area’.

The ‘Idea Store’ brand was launched in 1999, and has been hailed as ‘a ground- breaking concept’ and ‘the future of urban libraries’. The flagship store is in Whitechapel, East London, and is conveniently placed for shoppers in front of a Sainsbury’s food store. The ‘Idea Store’ in Bow has been a success; it averages around 1,000 visitors a day, compared to 250-300 in the old library building. A user, who is now a frequent visitor, is quoted as saying:

”..whenever I’m looking after my granddaughter, I bring her here to play with the other children. And for me it’s a lovely place to sit with a cup of tea.”

screenshot (96KB): Figure 1: The Idea Store Web site

Figure 1: The Idea Store Web site

Libraries in the Media: the Discovery Centre

This brings us to a discussion on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme on 27 February 2004 [6]. In this case, the media homed in on the closure of Gosport Library in Hampshire, which is being refurbished and reopened as a ‘Discovery Centre’ in Spring 2005 at a cost of £2 million. ‘Discovery Centres’ [7] are Hampshire County Council’s version of the London ‘Idea Store’; the figure below shows the layout of a ‘Discovery Centre’ and what it might typically include.

screenshot (94KB) : Figure 2 : Introducing the Discovery Centre concept to Hampshire

Figure 2: Introducing the Discovery Centre concept to Hampshire

The ‘Discovery Centre’ concept is described on the Council Web site as:

”….young people-friendly, with an entertainment zone - a thriving environment to meet friends and choose from the latest collections of DVDs and CDs, and a study area for those who want to read or do their homework in peace. When possible cafés and crèches will be introduced encouraging customers to take a leisurely approach to using the array of facilities.

Technology will play a big part in making services accessible. Where limited space prevents the physical presence of some facilities, virtual access will be provided via the computers of the People’s Network.” [7]

The Today programme saw an opportunity here for some good sound bites on the whole ‘Discovery Centre’ approach. Edward Stourton presented the programme, and opened the discussion by referring to the “fashion for turning libraries into so-called learning centres”. We were treated to a chorus of tinies enjoying nursery hour, followed by an unhappy user, who argued that it was wrong of the council to provide mothers with somewhere to dump their children while they had a cup of coffee.

The Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo, and the author, Deborah Moggagh provided the writer’s perspective, followed by Yinnon Ezra, Director of Recreation and Heritage at Hampshire County Council who gave the official view.

For Deborah Moggach, the crèches and the re-branding were the problem. She thought that local authorities were terrified of the word ‘book’, (not, as I thought, the word ‘library’), and that books were being marginalised. She also felt strongly about noise – it pollutes our lives in the same way as light from cities pollutes the night sky. The public library should be a quiet haven away from the intrusive sound of mobile phones. “The wonderfulness of public libraries is unarguable” she said and no one contradicted her.

Michael Morpurgo felt the change of name to ‘Discovery Centre’ was ‘pretty silly’, and he seemed to follow the Audit Commission’s line that libraries did not offer enough choice of books. Budgets were a problem, he acknowledged, and when money was tight computers were likely to take precedence over books. The ideal solution, he suggested, was for libraries to be allocated bigger budgets to enable them to buy computers and books in equal measure. Perhaps writers should get out more, or failing this, they should be locked in a room with local authority chief executives for a week.

Yinnon Ezra told the programme that Hampshire County Council had gone for a ‘radical approach’ for libraries. He admitted the strategy was ‘risky in some areas’, but the council had to find ways to engage new users. He denied claims that fewer books were being purchased and felt that libraries were one of most important institutions in the country; so ‘doing nothing was not an option’ as this would result in libraries being ‘marooned’.

Reactions to the Today Broadcast

The library debate on the Today programme inspired Lynne Truss, author of “Eats, shoots and leaves” to pen a piece for the Times [8]. In it she recalls a planning meeting she attended some years back to choose a new library for Brighton. Having cast an eye over, and poked a finger at, the various models on display, Ms Truss asked one of the trio of architects in attendance: “How many books will this one hold?” Needless to say the architect did not have an answer. However, her recollections of childhood visits to Ham library near Richmond are enough to bring tears to the eyes of anyone old enough (and probably female) to remember the Milly Molly Mandy books. Ham library is described as a ‘sacred place’ smelling of polish, where the only sound to be heard was ‘catalogue drawers sliding on oiled metal rods’. Books were the magnet that drew the young Lynne Truss to the public library.

However, the world we inhabit today is a different one and public libraries cannot stand still, they have to evolve to survive. Striking a balance between the traditional and the new is a difficult task and trying to provide something for everyone, irrespective of age or social group, is a hard task. Libraries should be for everyone - but again this is an ideal that can be hard to realise.

On a final note, Michael Morpurgo referred to the library model adopted in France, which he thought offered the best of both worlds. In France there are ‘bibliothèques’ and ‘médiathèques’; the former offers books and a quiet place to read and study, whilst the latter has IT facilities and multimedia resources. A Google search revealed a list of ‘bibliothèques’ and ‘médiathèques’ on the Berkeley Digital Library SunSite Web site [9]. The Bibliothèque de Reims [10] provides information in French and English, and although the English is a bit quirky in places, the message contained in the mission statement is clear in either language:

“Our missions are: to maintain and develop the practice of reading for children and adults, to ensure access to the various forms of cultural expression, to help discovering the pleasure of learning, to guarantee free access for all to the new supports of information and new technologies as well as multi-media, to ensure conservation of the written inheritance and particularly local patrimonial collections, to support the initial and permanent formation, to allow everybody the possibility of updating his scholarly or professional assets, to be a place of discovery, meeting, exchanging ideas and promoting well being in the city.

A charter, validated by the municipal authority, written procedures and a regular evaluation guarantee the respect of these principles and a harmonious functioning of the libraries”.

The Bibliothèque de Reims refers to ‘a place of discovery’ - which chimes with the naming of the ‘Discovery Centres’ in this country. Unfortunately, there are other ‘discovery centres’ in the UK which are tourist attractions, so it seems a shame that the word ‘library’ has not been retained unlike ‘Bibliothèque’ in France. But their culture is different from ours and with a choice of two discrete centres they may not feel the need to rebrand their libraries. Next time I visit France I might take a peek inside one of these bibliothèques or médiathèques to see what we can learn from them.


  1. Audit Commission (2002). Building Better Library Services. ACKnowledge. Learning from audit, inspection and research. Available: http://www.audit-commission.gov.uk/
  2. Charles Leadbeater. Overdue. How to create a modern public library service. Demos. April 2003. http://www.demos.co.uk/catalogue/default.aspx?id=262
  3. Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Framework for the future: Libraries, Learning and Information in the next decade. http://www.culture.gov.uk/global/publications/archive_2003/framework_future.htm
  4. Megan Lane. Is this the library of the future? BBC News Online. 18 March 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/2859845.stm
  5. The Idea Store Web site: http://www.ideastore.co.uk/
  6. Radio Four. The Today Programme. Presented by Edward Stourton. Available as an audio clip on Listen again, broadcast on 27 February 2004 at 0843 a.m. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/today/listenagain/zfriday_20040227.shtml
  7. Discovery Centres, Hampshire County Council. http://www.hants.gov.uk/rh/discoverycentres/
  8. Lynne Truss. Shhh! If only you’d shut up, you’d hear the books screaming. The Times Online. 28 February 2004. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/ or see Lynne Truss article.
  9. Libraries on the Web, Berkeley University. Libraries in France. http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Libweb/France.html
  10. Bibliothèque de Reims: http://www.bm-reims.fr/

Further Reading:

Related articles in Ariadne:

Ebooks in public libraries: where are we now?

A Grand Day Out

Framework for the future: access to digital skills and services.

Which way now? The future of UK public libraries.

Author Details

Penny Garrod
Public Library Networking Focus

Email: p.garrod@ukoln.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/public/

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