Following a dark period of drunkenness, poverty, inequality, crime and nastiness (so famously depicted by Hogarth in his Rake’s Progress series), Britain underwent a period of rehabilitation following its gin hangover, and engaged upon a series of civic improvements and entrepreneurial philanthropy which created many of our great museums, charitable institutions and libraries of learning.
Ensconced in many of the Victorian and Georgian buildings that housed societies and institutions dedicated to particular fields of learning, libraries house collections and archives that chart hundreds of years of research and achievement, as well as being a perennial goldmine for contemporary research.
In light of the economic recession and David Cameron’s announcement of “big society”, libraries and library funding came in for a series of policy amendments and spending cuts that have left many trained professionals in the library field wondering about their job security, and many historic collections hanging in the balance.
Public libraries suffer the dual stigma of being both recipients of public sector funding, and an area that progressive governments have deemed rather unnecessary, due no doubt to the uptake of the internet and the effectiveness of Google, its primary search engine. However many of the private institutions which archive texts and are open to the public and members also enjoy charitable status, and have in turn been hit by a downturn in government aid and overall charitable spending in the recession.
Most of the major London institutions are also a casualty of their exalted status: most occupy prestigious buildings in prime London locations. Many of these grand buildings are in severe need of expensive restoration and where the institution does not own the premises outright, renewal of expensive leases (which often include restrictive covenants which can impact revenue-generating activities) are forcing many to re-think their focus, and consider closing their libraries.
Libraries are often unique collections that detail the history of the organisation, sometimes going back for hundreds of years. They can hold key documents, research and papers that chronicled the social and scientific advancement of the world, including original works from the likes of Newton and Faraday. Libraries are also accounted value on the extent of their collections, and by dint of sheer age many have accumulated a simply massive range of sources, including texts from other historic collections that have been broken up. Other collections have actively pursued or had donated to them rare items for which they act as conservational archivists.
None of the above however, usually translates into raw revenue . . . and in light of financial constraints and the odd poor executive board decision, many libraries and reading rooms are soon going to become a part of history, rather than a place to review it. Many institutions are looking to relocate to “purpose-built” (and cheaper to maintain building) and their libraries are not coming with them. Some are considering long-term off-site storage for their archives, but even this involves drastic pruning of their collection in order to keep costs down. Others are simply developing their ornate reading rooms into social areas for meetings and conferences . . . one landmark London Institute is turning its library (which is often used as a location by TV companies for scientific documentaries) into little more than a glorified coffee-shop, removing the subject matter from the shelves and replacing with ornamental book stock (as you would get in a pretentiously trendy pub).
Playing devil’s advocate, you could argue whether these expensive buildings and reading rooms were necessary in today’s digital age. Surely libraries could just digitise the content and make this available remotely, or via terminals to drop-in visitors?
Many librarians have been digital evangelists for a long time, however publishers of content are different beasts. Most have their own society’s publications available, but collecting third party research content relies on a bewildering variety of delivery platforms, document formats, digital rights and pricing models from publishers deeply nervous about online piracy and "releasing" digital content. Digitisation of historical content too suffers from being expensive and destructive on a large scale. For many this isn’t cost effective and other volumes are simply too fragile to survive being packed off to Asia to be cheaply scanned.
Librarians also suffer from being gatekeepers to Copyright. Libraries pay hefty fees to allow the limited copying of copyrighted material, and most simply could not afford the licensing to “own” material still under Copyright. Given the bizarre and drastic legislation proposed recently by the government concerning digital piracy, it seems insane that they should be advocating that libraries should simply rip off publishers by digitising their entire collections . . . which is essentially what Google did when they launched their collections project (and are still in the process of settling lawsuits).
So if big society isn’t to include the definition of Copyright thief, what can be done to save an essential part of the country’s history and accumulated learning? Or is this another luxury we have to trim away under the austerity cuts (whilst maintaining all the expenses of Westminster’s pomp and ceremony)? Owning a library used to be seen as a mark of status and refinement, with most stately homes priding themselves on their collections. Condemnation too, has been heaped on other nations and governments for attacking centres of learning, burning books and stifling education. But, as with everything in the current economic climate, if you do it slowly and gradually, it's amazing what you can get away with.