Libraries of the future…

Leeds Library by Nuala Bugeye
Leeds Library by Nuala Bugeye

This post came about as a result of hearing that there were plans to look into the future of library provision across Leeds. The Guardian provided an excellent blog during the council executive board meeting today,which stimulated a discussion on Twitter.

I’m hoping that you’ll excuse my lack of knowledge about Libraries (not sure they should have a capital L, but feel that they deserve one), as I confess this post is hopefully a starting point for conversation, rather than an ignorant desire to see my world vision come to life.

My experience of libraries recently is visiting with my two year old, I occasionally go to Armley Library, which houses a One Stop Shop and runs various community groups, forums, and consultations. I would not go were it not for my little girl, but when I’m there I actually wish I went more often. The building is beautiful, the staff seem friendly enough, and it seems to do what we need it to. I love the sense of history, and yet it’s not enough to change my lazy habits…

I rarely borrow books myself, I enjoy taking G along because she likes to run up and down the lovely light filled main room, rifle manically through books and cause a rumpus. She’s only two, but I think it’s important to take her to the library, to give her that experience. However we don’t go very frequently.

Leeds Central Library is an outstanding building, full of amazing tilework, architecture, and masonry. I’m always awed by the actual building, and yet again don’t really access it’s full service, despite thinking they do a great job on Twitter to inform me about their business services, E-books, family activities, book groups and much more.  Once I have done something as a result of knowing an event was happening. I have to motivate myself, and yet something holds me back…

The crux for me is I like to buy books, even though I never read them again,  and most often give them away. I used to love Borders (even though I eschew chains generally). I do this less now that Borders is gone, not enjoying the experience on Amazon, unless it’s a necessity. The recession may have changed such squanderous buying, but it doesn’t seem to have resulted in me going to the library any more than before.

What kind of  Library would I frequent more? I’m sure this is horribly middle class, but I really would love to hang out somewhere in a gorgeous building on a comfy sofa, with good coffee, cake and wifi. I would pitch up for the day, do a bit of work, meet some like minded folk, take my time chewing over which books to read and then take my bounty home, or not. I would expect the Librarians and staff to be friendly, knowledgeable and welcoming as well as experts in their field.  What reason would I have not to go? I would even pay for a service like this, as it doesn’t exist. A home from home in the city. I wouldn’t mind paying as I went, or subsidising those who could not afford it. I’d pay Starbucks money for a Sunshine Bakery type cafe.  I would be happy to do a skill swap for an hour if that helped in some way towards anything…

Now I appreciate this is a really contentious subject, I’m just expressing what would change my infrequent use of a library. Would this alienate people from coming to the library, if it felt club like, or homely? What is the future for Libraries, what should I be reading to be better informed about how these most important of civic spaces survive into the future? What are the radical alternatives? Why are they even under threat, are they not sacrosanct?

Some blogs were recommended to me today, I’ve just started to dip into them but they are:

Voices for the Library

Lauren Smith

New Library in Almere recommended by @rasharples

Please do shout, rant, clarify, express, share, enlighten in the comments box below and if you post a hyperlink be aware it means your post will go to moderation, it’s not lost though!

Nuala’s photostream can be found on Flickr


  1. I’m in two minds over this. On the one side, I agree. On the other side, I like them as they are.

    (Typical libra)

    The library of the University I went to had a basement with comfy chairs, computers to use, vending machines, a stationery shop… But I didn’t go and hang out in there.


    Because that’s where the Library Geeks went and hung out. All day. Every day. Them being there just to hang out when I was trying to just jump on a computer to check my bank balance irritated the hell out of me.

    I don’t particularly want a library that’s a starbooks. (See what I did there?) I don’t want obnoxious people chatting while I’m perusing for a book. Because for me, libraries are a place of sanctuary. They calm me. I like being near the books. I like the order. I like the quiet.

    However, when I was in London a couple of weeks ago Pete took me to the British Library. I absolutely loved it. We had lunch in the restaurant, browsed in the book shop, and soaked up the utter wonderfulness of the place. It wasn’t noisy, people were hanging out, working, researching or like me, being a tourist. That sort of thing I’d imagined I would hate. But I didn’t.

    I was amazed at all the people on their little macbooks merrily working away with a cup of coffee, I’d go as far as to say it seemed to be the cool place to be seen to be working.

    I would love Leeds to have this, and perhaps the city library already does? But I wouldn’t know, because I don’t ever go. I feel guilty for that fact, but I don’t go into Leeds and think to myself hey I’ll borrow some books. I do think that if I’m in Rothwell and have some spare time and fancy a wander into the little library.

    But does Rothwell need a library? I’m divided with my opinion on that one too. It’s a small place, the library never seems busy, perhaps it would be if it had a little coffee bar in, and stayed open later? I would love to go to an evening book club in it, or a conversational language group. But I’ve heard tales of the library staff being terrorised on an evening by local little sods. So is it worth it to the library staff to have to put up with that for a little bit of extra custom? Possibly if there’s income generation, but would it ever generate enough?

    Also, thinking about it as a local authority employee I don’t want libraries staff to lose their jobs in the same way I don’t want to lose my own. But I think we all accept there will be cuts to things that should never be cut, and we will lose our jobs.

    I would hate to see the loss of lots of local libraries, because I don’t think I would ever go to one if that happened, I don’t feel compelled to use the city library. Perhaps I should change my ways with that though?

    Apologies for this long and rambling comment!

  2. No that’s a great comment or blog post! It just shows how much we think we *ought* yet *don’t*

    We’d sure as hell kick up a stink if they were truly threatened, I know I would, but what stops me being more active a user?

    Is it laziness, convenience, a nostalgia for a time that no longer exists, I’m not sure.

    Your comment has made me think though, about the rose tinted specs I wear and the reality of a community resource.

    Cheers Rach

    1. It was a wee bit long, I thought about doing my own blog post, but it seemed silly to do that and not post my thoughts here 🙂

    2. I can recommend Essex Libraries. If only other counties followed their example. Socially responsible coffee shops run not for profit, staffed by Adults with learning difficulties gaining social and job skills, accessible buildings, free Wi-FI in all libraries, RFID self service in many(as a choice – the staff are still there!). can’t rate them enough.

  3. Libraries – like 6 Music, I love the idea, want to see them continue, but rarely use them. The small choice, often out of date non-fiction and air of quiet goes against them for me. On the plus side, get a good librarian and you have a great person to help you read more and more widely.

    Trouble is that I get that service through the net now – twitter, shelfari, even Amazon offer amazing curation. Now if a library offered me an online space for me to share and discover books that they have available, I could get excited about that. And if they had a Love Film style model, where I can get books to borrow sent to me, all the better.

    But at the moment, why would I go?

  4. I think that a lot of us who feel we ought to visit the library more are still lamenting the loss of Borders. I know miss being able to roll up at Birstall at nine in the evening grab a coffee and browse. Unlike the local library, the staff would recognise me and later my son when we came in.

    To attract people libraries need to become somewhere people want to be. Whether that’s emulating what Borders was or even just redecorating so they becoming less clinical and more welcoming, they’re just not an attractive place to visit. A sense of obligation or guilt that we may lose them is not enough.

      1. Like I said because we know that like so many local resources & businesses that if we don’t use them we risk losing them. Then again for little more than the bus fair to my local library I can have a secondhand copy delivered to my door often in better condition.

        1. If people aren’t visiting somewhere, then is it really a useful resource? Which I think is what you were saying in your post. If libraries aren’t welcoming places that people want to go to, then they are not a resource we should feel guilty about not using.

          The same strikes me about local businesses – there are plenty that do cracking business because they are run by savvy people, who create a welcoming environment. Others don’t. I don’t think a business deserves to stay open simply because it is local and independent!

  5. I really feel for libraries as they have been pulled in loads of directions. They make me think of the other institution that used to be synonymous with working-class betterment: churches.

    As they struggle to pull in a new crowd (think of the smoothies and cappuccinos in Rev) they slowly alienate the stalwarts who’ve been there since for ever and who believe themselves to the real keepers of the flame, in changing times.

    I stopped going to church at one point because I was getting snobby about the other people that went there: the Jesus Geeks, the lost and lonely, and ne’er do wells – and in retrospect – I was actually one of their number – I just didn’t like admitting it. Which is a horribly ironic state of affairs and shows why I had lost sight of the central purpose of the institution.

    The diversity of opinion in these posts reflects this lack of consensus and shows we expect different things.
    Are they places to source books or to source more general info (DVDs and CDs)?
    Are they inclusive social spaces where poor and lonely feel as welcome as the rich and idle?
    The place where people with hearing/visual impairments access info which is simply not available elsewhere.
    Where are the other non-school places of learning in communities?

    But the apparent centrality of where we find books in this discussion (borders/amazon etc) cloaks the bigger issue of our withdrawal from egalitarian civic space. Although we lionise comprehensive education for our kids and bragg to our friends about the “vibrant diversity” of our communities, heaven help us if we have to rub shoulders with the hoi polloi in the queue to pay our fines. It’s safer and easier to find what we want online.

    Imagine the idiocy of shutting down the galleries, in order to create a mobile Gallery bus which delivered the art we like to our door. Before you Benjaminites jump down my throat at this point about the alienating aura of authenticity – what I’m advocating is the Gallery as a social space of learning, inquiry and play. Schools and colleges are no longer about following your nose. They’re about exams. Libraries should be about mucking about, and playing with knowledge – in the company of others. I would advocate quiet rooms where quiet people want to hang out, rather than keeping the entire place under a cosh of silent awe.

    So in short, I’d echo the sentiments of longer opening hours, affordable cups of tea and wifi. I’d also add the ability to return books out of hours, greater self-service, to allow Librarians to be the quirky old Sherpas of the Knowledge Mountain that I remember, facilitating [aimless] intellectual meanderings – rather than book-stampers and order-keepers. Oh, and I’d encourage the public use of meeting rooms/areas to do what they think is important. There’s going to be a lot of meetings in this Big Society of ours, and where better to host the embiggening of Leeds than in its fabulous library spaces?

    As a small coda: the libraries of Leeds have played a quiet but important role in welcoming people seeking refuge in our City, and helping them to learn how we do things round here. Libraries promote social cohesion. If we allow them to die, we all lose, sooner or later.

    1. Isn’t the real value of libraries curation? In the same way that a gallery only makes sense if it is curated rather than chucked together. Therefore the important part of library (from a book point of view) is not the building, but the people.

      To your point about egalitarian space, I see what you are saying. But isn’t the trend (right or wrong) slowly moving away from geographical communities and towards communities of interest? Physical mobility and the need to move for jobs means that people exist in communities that have nothing to do with their location. The internet has facilitated this move, allowing niche interests that would previously have been too small to form in an area to exist in the virtual space.

      Some of these communities of interest are definitely geographical in nature, but these are getting fewer as people move about more. Something like Light Night is not necessarily about Leeds, but about the arts.

      I am not sure that this is a great thing, but I do feel it is true. Therefore a building that is necessarily in one place is going to struggle to have a cohesive role to play in a geographical community that is less and less attached to its geography.

      1. I’m hearing an ambivalent response to civic space here, not a complete secession. Digital communities of interest still meet up in analogue spaces: Tweetups, the many salons across the city, social media surgeries (why aren’t more of these held in libraries). But these happen in pubs, and caffs, or private spaces where people can drink and talk. Where people can commandeer a corner and not be told to hush up, or they haven’t booked it. I worry that privatised spaces (Caffs/pubs) rely on that 1.75 for a cup of coffee though. And you get hoofed out at busy times (lunch times) in favour of people with more money to spend.

        Knowledge is no longer created by individuals locked in quiet spaces (if it ever really was): there is greater public acknowledgement of the power of conversations in producing ideas, and libraries should be incubators of conversation.

        Light Night is a good example of how civic space can be inhabited by communities of interest, and the best ones are usually attempts to start a conversation. Single use spaces are dead. Light night proves the thirst for mashing up ideas with spaces. Again, I return to galleries. They understand the relevance of providing a frame, even if they don’t dictate what’s inside that frame.

        Curating is a good word btw. That is most definitely the way forward

  6. Hello all.

    Like everyone I like libraries and don’t use them. I also used to work alongside them linking groups and alt users to them and their knowledge. So I love them, love the universality and think they’re well used. Ironically many of the barriers other people find won’t be mentioned here: proof of address, heavy fines, air of unwelcoming?

    There is also the difference between what people think they want and what they do want (and will pay for). There are subscription libraries and clubs in Leeds that offer many of the quasi social needs for those of us who spend all day in front of computers. Weatherspoons have free wifi – libraries don’t. Weatherspoons sell cheap coffee all day – libraries rarely make enough to cover costs. So not easy. I’d love to see something similar for social entrepreneurs, but were getting so unused to meeting new people in social settings I wonder if it would work.

    Last thing. Those who want to see an example of everything you’ve discribed above – go to Garforth. It’s open, light, well used (although the oldies still complain about the pushchairs) And it has a cafe. Franchise. Run by a nice bloke and his misses who are up for trying it in different venues..

  7. If i close my eyes i can easily see my much younger self running around accrington library discovering all the different sections of knowledge, my mum used to take me every week and while she was desperately trying to work out which of the mills and boon she hadn’t yet read (she would read several a week and still does)i would marvel at pulling random books off the shelves and seeing what lay inside.

    Then grew up (though that bit is debatable) and got a saturday job and discovered waterstones in manchester, a massive scary city if you are from accrington, and my eyes got bigger still at the beautiful books that i could take home and keep..And when i moved to leeds there was dillons, austwicks, waterstones and borders as well as several secondhand bookshops around hyde park. The public library was now dead to me.

    Now i have come full circle. Bookshops have reduced in number and recently so has my income. My girlfriend has recently joined bingley library, where you can search their catalogue online, which gives you access to the entire stock of the library service not just what is in your local one and take out 20 books. You order what you want and they even ring you up to say your book is in. Forgive me for stating what is bleedingly obvious but its like amazon but erm here is the good bit…its free.

    And that is just the books bit, then there is all the community stuff talked about so brilliantly above by others.

    Come on..libraries rock.

    1. I’m not a fan of massive fan of Amazon, but I do think that the thing Libraries will fail to compete in the future on is convenience. When I grew up we were accustomed to waiting, I enjoyed the little tactile cards, stamps etc. Now I neither want to wait for my books, my music, my shopping whatever, I am conditioned to expecting things as my whims take me.

      As for accessing information, I can find myriad sources of information on the internet, from friends, etc

      Furthermore with 2 kids I don’t want to carry lots of baggage.

      But what I lament is sensual space, beautiful buildings, historic texts, hidden discoveries, the sense of other people’s hands and their touch of the books. The impression that there’s so much more in a good library than is meeting the eye.

      I don’t think it would take too much more to entice me back into the library, other than what I’ve described in my original post. Somewhere as Jon describes, which encourages a diverese communities to come seek their own versions of sanctuary in the City, or in the burbs.

  8. I like the “idea” of a library – but whether its curation, aggregation or distribution of knowledge – other parts of our culture now do this better. Libraries no longer have a monopoly on knowledge and information and publishers no longer have a monopoly on the distribution of data.

    It’s also worth noting that Leeds has great non-obvious libraries at Leeds Met, the University of Leeds and of course the British Library – maybe they should all be encouraged to be more civically oriented and public…

    I do find appeal in Emma’s notion of a sensual space – the Vancouver Public Library, Seattle Library and even the Library Of Congress are great examples of this.

    I’ve always wondered if libraries moved beyond the po-facsed “SHHHH!” culture to one that embraced libraries as noisy, public arenas to share, debate, learn and perform knowledge, they’d be better positioned to ensure as useful institutions.

    Indeed, maybe Emma is the librarian of the future – curating a city through digital and physical activity.

    Curiously as library’s importance as a place declines, the notion of electronic books as ‘places’ rather than objects or artefacts is trending…

    1. Thanks Imran. I bask in a glow of something! I read that three times and admit I like the description…ego sufficiently stroked!

      I would love it if you could expand a little more on the notion of electronic books as places rather than objects or artefacts, that sounds very interesting…

      1. I don’t have an iPad or Kindle yet – but I’ve been using Kindle on my Mac and have had books as PDFs for some time.

        What’s striking about a Kindle book is the shared annotations and notes – as well as marking up a book with your own notes, you can share them and view those of others. So books start to have their own smaller social networks – where readers and writers gather, share insights, comment and give recommendations.

        It’s an early ‘weak signal’ right now – but it seems as though an electronic book is more than just the media itself, but the attendant conversations and ownerships too…it’s a place for its readers 🙂

  9. Public librarians in the U.S. have debated the “bookstore-ization” of the library for several years now. Some agree with you, that a cafe and a comfortable area with cushy chairs and couches are exactly what’s needed to promote and encourage people to use the library. Some librarians are concerned that the bookstore “vibe”, which is primarily one of leisure and entertainment, is the wrong one for libraries.

    I’m not sure where I stand in that debate. To me, it is much more important that libraries meet their patrons’ needs at a fundamental level. With so many people out of work today, local libraries are increasingly important to the community. Usage has grown dramatically in the past two years as libraries have created services specifically designed to help the unemployed learn new skills and re-enter the work force. Yet, despite the greater demand for their services, libraries are still under the threat of drastic cuts to their budgets.

    You obviously recognize the value of libraries, even though you don’t use them very often. I urge you and your readers to support your local library and let your elected officials know that you would oppose cuts to the library’s budget.

  10. I am an enthusiastic user of Leeds Central Library, I don’t know how I would do without it. It already has a great cafe, if slightly too expensive for me, and a wonderful building – I always go up the side staircase just to look at it again. Wifi would be great though. I don’t understand some of the complaints made above – barriers such as “proof of address, heavy fines, unwelcoming atmosphere”? I have never felt a lack of welcome, just the reverse, you can avoid fines by renewing online, by phone, or bringing the book back, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask for proof of address if you are borrowing public property.
    The art library is amazing, it must be one of the best in the country. I am a pensioner and there is no way I could afford to buy even a small percentage of the art books I want to read. This sort of book is not available on the internet yet. I hope that more people will discover it as the recession bites; I hope it escapes the cuts; I hope that it isn’t invaded by people yakking on sofas while I am trying to read – as art books are often heavy, people sometimes want to read them in the library rather than taking them home.

  11. Think about this – why do local authorities have a monopoly on public libraries? They should hold them in trust and let US run them under license!

  12. Just to add my two-penneth worth,

    I think Leeds Central Library is actually one of the best I have used in the UK. They have an excellent selection of poetry books – many titles I have never seen before in a public library. But the Local Library has an extensive archive of all things Leeds-related.

    It’s easy-peasy to use. I order everything online, pay 60p to pick it up – and have the pleasure of keeping hold of it for as long as I like. When my books arrive a strange robotic woman rings me up and leaves a message to collect them. That’s my favourite bit.

    As a passionate library user I have to say that Leeds Central really offers a spot-on service. The staff are friendly and knowledgable, it is fast becoming my favourite aside from the British Library (one of the best things about our country in my opinion).

    It would be a real tragedy if the local ones are closed. Many people rely upon them, ‘Libraries Gave Us Power’ once upon a time. The government is already discouraging aspiration by raising tuition fees, the very least they can do is still provide the means for people to educate themselves at a grassroots level.

  13. In October, Leeds City Council announced plans to close 20 of its 53 library branches, in response to a council report detailing a “new vision for the future of the library service in Leeds”.

    Leeds City Council argue that in order to improve the library service, 20 smaller branches must close because they do not meet the needs of Leeds communities. However, through the analysis of information provided following a Freedom of Information request, Voices for the Library have discovered that 22 of Leeds’ 53 libraries recorded an increase in library visits on the previous year (2008/09). Of these 22 libraries, 10 of these are libraries that the authority plans to close. Furthermore, six of the libraries earmarked for closure recorded increases in book loans. Use of library computers also increased, which is of particular importance for a library service in the Yorkshire region, which has some of the lowest rates of household internet access in the country. Of the number of libraries that have seen an increase in this service, the council proposes to close nine of them.

    Voices for the Library, a campaign group founded by library and information professionals, have looked into the impact the proposed closures are likely to have on their communities. Some of the most deprived areas in the city have seen some of the strongest growth in library usage, yet these are the branches which look set to close. We therefore urge library campaigners and library users in the Leeds area to press the DCMS to conduct a review of these proposals. Those who most rely on libraries will suffer the most, no matter the increasing numbers of people that are using them. These resources are needed now more than ever, and Leeds City Council would be unjustified in their decision to close them.

    An article with full details of the proposals, information about why the reasons for closure are unsubstantiated, and what communities can do to challenge the closures, has been published on our website:

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