Thursday, 2 December 2010

Brown bag lunch: 'Is the physical library redundant in the 21st century?'

At this month's Cambridge Librarians' networking/discussion 'brown bag' lunch, we took as our subject the BL/THES debate ''Is the physical library redundant in the 21st century?' held on 26 October, featuring Mary Beard, Clive Bloom, Sarah Porter, and Martin Lewis, and part of the BL Growing Knowledge project.  As well as a good summary blog post, there's a podcast, an archive of tweets, and some attendees' and participants' blog posts also available.
'Study, study, study' by pnoeric on Flickr
'Study, study, study' by pnoeric on Flickr

The topic - do we still need physical libraries - is enormously broad, and it's one that cuts to the heart of many current debates about the future of libraries (and gives me flashbacks to my very first LIS MA essay on 'the paperless library').  To be able to answer the question you need to be able to discern what the true purpose(s) and value(s) of libraries is(are).  This breadth of scope put me off listening to the podcast until the evening before the meeting, but, having braved it, I can report that I found it really interesting listening, and also a debate that wasn't so broad as to avoid all summarization.

There were several main strands that ran through each of the four speakers' pieces, and through the subsequent lengthy question session:
Physicality | Space for thinking and working | Librarians | E-stuff is great | Democratisation of knowledge | Money
We covered all of these in the brown bag discussion one way and another, and what follows is an attempt to synthesise all the various opinions and to discern my own.
'Library' by Stewart on Flickr
'Library' by Stewart on Flickr


Books are lovely objects and libraries are often lovely spaces (Mary Beard made a rather impassioned, nay passionate, defence of the library as a, quite literally, sexy space, though no-one at the Brown Bag went quite that far!).  Clive Bloom's assertion that you 'learn nothing more' by actually touching a book rather than reading it in e-form is clearly only true in some instances, and I strongly believe that special collections and book historical research are one of the major selling points for the continued existence of physical libraries.  Andy Priestner however reminded us to remember that the magic of serendipitous discovery in dusty tomes is something of a myth promulgated by academics who don't want anything ever to be weeded.

Space for thinking and working

Everyone at the Brown Bag seemed to agree that there's still demand for working space in libraries, and that in Cambridge there's still considerable demand for quiet study space.  We discussed the effectiveness of the Sheffield University Information Commons (it was great to have a recent Sheffield Graduate, one of this year's Graduate Trainee librarians) to give the student perspective of the IC - it seemed to be felt that it was a nice idea, but that it took a while for the 'policing' to make it an effective space.  Another interesting avenue of discussion centred on the 'caché' of the library space: two librarians noted that their users wanted to have non-traditional library spaces (such as IT training rooms and informal cafe-style spaces) inside the library, and not just near by.


Not all the speakers at the debate mentioned librarians, but those who did viewed them as a positive asset because of their knowledge and skills.  But we need to be marketing ourselves more so that people think of us as the 'person to ask' for help (the Judge Business School seem to be having great success with their information-service-in-the-common-room scheme).

E-stuff is great

There was general agreement at the lunch that e-resources are often brilliant, so far as they go, but that the idea that 'everything is online' was patently rubbish.  What with delays in availability of new editions of books in e-format, slow download speeds (a reader bugbear), difficulties with access and reliability, the simple fact that not nearly everything is available digitally yet, and the difficulty with, for example, browsing e-journals or e-books, mean that paper equivalents are still heavily used.  Martin Lewis said more than once that more needed to be done to inform readers that when they're using online journals and databases, they're using the library, as most don't realise that it's the library that provides the access.  It would be interesting to think further about how this could be done without making access slower or taking the user through extra, apparently unnecessary screens...

Democratisation of knowledge

This was a phrased used by Clive Bloom and Sarah Porter.  They suggested that libraries were intimidating, exclusive spaces, and that now 'everything's online' anyone could access whatever information they wanted. As I've already said, this is patently false - you can't get everything you might need with just an internet connection and free search tools.  I have more sympathy with the idea that a library can be an intimidating space, and that some users might prefer to be able to access its resources remotely.  But that fact doesn't invalidate the existence of a physical library or, more importantly, a physical librarian in it.


Quite a lot was said in the BL debate about the cost of physical storage, and the need for collaborative efforts (such as the UK Research Reserve) to manage the long-term retention of older material.  The distinction was drawn between 'elite' research libraries and general academic libraries, which will have different priorities for retention.  This isn't really news, although it's a good reminder that the general view of libraries amongst the public, students, and academics is that 'they (should) keep everything'.  If we recognise that that statement is false, that each library keeps what its users need, then the idea of collaborative retention programmes stops looking like the threat that at least one questioner seemed to view it as.  As I said at the top - central to the debate is the issue of 'what are libraries actually for' - and one answer to that is that each library is for someone, and therefor something different, and the top priority is to identify who and what.


So far as I have one, my conclusion is that, of course, libraries are hybrid spaces. People don't just use e-material or books; they use the best bits of both.  The title 'Is the physical library redundant' sets up a false dichotomy: the most important issue isn't 'phyical library' vs 'digital library' it's 'how do we ensure that our readers can meaningful access to as many of the resources that they need or want'.


  1. By the way, have you seen this one? I'm still trying to recover from the shock...

  2. @Niamh, Yes - must have been an interesting start to a conference, that!

  3. Excellent summary and conclusion something we should all be working towards.

  4. Interestingly when I did my dissertation back in 2007 (so not that long ago)...just about the top priority of the students was a plentiful supply of books in the library.

    Also I sometimes wonder whether just as after viewing a film we then consider buying the book, some people view an e-book briefly for a specific piece of information or to see what it is like, but if they think they will use it more frequently they then buy a hard copy?

  5. Thanks LK!

    Chris - that's actually something that Libby (I think) mentioned specifically. Some of her readers have said that they use Google books to see if a book's relevant, and then, if it is, they come to the library to borrow it.

  6. This sounded like a very interesting lunch. I'm glad that the evening provided some food for thought for it!
    I've added a link back to here from the Growing Knowledge blog. I hope that is okay,



  7. @Matthew. Yes, of course that's fine. Thank you, indeed. We could have kept talking for hours, I think - shame we all had to get back to work. Thanks again for recording the event.

  8. This might interest you;
    It is a brilliant interactive space which used the Library as an exhibition space and emphasized the positives of the physical library environment.

  9. Frangipan, thanks for that tip. I see that the exhibition's on until 9 December at the Cambridge Central and Great Shelford libraries. I'll try and make it there after Christmas!