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It’s been an interesting day for tweets and blog posts about libraries, mostly sparked by Seth Godin’s post on ‘The future of the library‘. I found it really interesting as, for me, it encapsulated the whole problem with why libraries and librarians have such a hard time getting their message and mission out there.

You see, I think the issue is entirely to do with whether people see the library as (in Godin’s words) a ‘warehouse for books’ or a ‘house for the librarian’.

There are those, mostly in the public library arena (which, to be fair, is the arena Godin focuses on in this post), who want to promote the library as community space, bringing the joy of reading to the masses, providing beautiful, tactile, ink-n-dust-n-paper-smelling actual physical books to its users, an antidote to the quick-as-you-like dotcom world of hyperlinks, URLs and (gasp!) tweets.

And this is a really valuable point. I remember going to library school in the early ’90s and attending a lecture entitled ‘Is the book dead?’ Really – it’s not, and looks not to be for some time, and yes we do need to remind people that not everything is available at the touch of a button. There are joys to browsing a physical copy of, say, the complete works of Shakespeare that simply can’t be matched by clicking on a link and searching for that elusive, misquoted quote.

However, there is another side to libraries – and that’s the focus on ‘information’ as opposed to ‘books’. This argument runs: it’s not the medium, it’s the message! And, in my view, this has to be the key.

Not everyone values the look, feel and smell of a leather-bound folio or a Penguin paperback. Many people these days are overwhelmed by the absolute mire of information that engulfs them on a daily basis, and need help negotiating a route through the swamp. And that’s where the ultimate point of Godin’s blog post comes in.

Librarians’ unique value comes not from ‘guarding dead paper’ but from encouraging, guiding and helping people to see what’s contained within those pages. Whether it’s a first edition of The Canterbury Tales or the latest news feed from the Department of Health about the prospects for your granny’s social care, librarians are the ones who can help you find what is meaningful in this. They can help you filter what’s relevant to you personally and teach you the skills to locate, evaluate and absorb it yourself in future without help. They can advise you on what other choices are out there (Harry Potter fan? Try Tolkien! Setting up your own business? Try Companies House!) and lead you towards self-sufficiency, whether that’s in the realm of traditional print fiction, or the latest social web technologies, or something that hasn’t even been imagined yet.

The problem that librarians have is that defending the public library often means focusing on books – which are, absolutely and without doubt, one of the essential parts of a librarian’s remit. However, when the battle moves from public libraries to corporate libraries / academic libraries / hospital libraries / etc, where the emphasis is on accessing information in whatever format it’s currently available – and these days, more and more, that means electronically – how well are we serving our library comrades if the only message we’ve given out is that it’s all about books? What about electronic subscriptions to vital databases? Providing remote current awareness services over the web to people who work off-site? Accessing that vital up-to-the-minute medical research to treat that unusual patient? A five-year-old textbook isn’t always going to cut it.

I’m not knocking the role of libraries as physical book warehouses – I love books and would happily fill my home with them to the exclusion of many other things. But please, for the sake of our colleagues in less traditional settings, let’s at least acknowledge that there’s more to libraries than print, and that the primary role of librarians is to guide people to the information they need to manage their lives as well as their loves.

Godin describes the librarian as “a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher” – and that’s a description I’m happy to identify with.

Just a quick post about the image I’ve chosen for the top of this blog. It’s a small portion of a picture of Lake Baikal in Siberia, taken by my father in September 2007. We were travelling together with friend David on what I like to think of as the ‘trip of a lifetime’, taking in Beijing, Mongolia, and the Trans-Siberian Railway, ending up in Moscow before coming home.

Why pick this picture? Well, firstly because it’s pretty and shows off the sparkle of the water in the sun! Secondly, because it reminds me of a great holiday, where I was able to get away from the usual concerns of life and experience several totally different cultures. And thirdly, because the sea symbolises (for me) the flow of information.

Information comes and goes, it flows in and out of our lives. And I’m interested in the whole package. Whether I’m helping people find out things they need to know, or using my writing and speaking skills to get relevant information out to others, I love it all. We’ve all experienced the frustration of broken systems and unnecessary hold-ups, and we all know what a relief it is when things work the way they’re supposed to. Well, that’s what I’m all about – I want life to run as smoothly as the tides, and I’ll do what I can to make that happen.

We stayed by Lake Baikal in a ‘log cabin’ open to tourists. There was no shower, the loo was a hole in the ground (albeit in a carpeted shed!), and the only opportunity for cleansing oneself was the sauna. Despite it being autumn in Siberia, we found ourselves sitting on the outside terrace of a lakeside bar, in our T-shirts, listening to Britney Spears on the sound system. Not quite what you might expect!

Information can come from surprising places, and I believe librarians have the ability to keep their eyes open, their ears alert and their noses to the ground in order to spot it when needed. We can find the right information at the right time, help identify that crucial piece of evidence, or push out that key message, to make the difference in someone’s life.

Plain sailing, you might say!

I’ve just downloaded the WordPress app to my HTC Hero (a Google Android phone) and am testing out how easy it is to post from my mobile. It seems pretty simple so far, and I’ve also been able to update my ‘About me’ page, so all in all this seems like a useful download. It’s free too! (I don’t think I’ve paid for an app yet, cheapskate that I am.)

It’ll be interesting to see how often I post from my mobile and how often I feel the need to fire up the computer. I tend to avoid going on the laptop as much as I can, as it feels a little too much like work 😉  but using my mobile makes things seem a lot more accessible.

They do say the future of the web is mobile, and I can certainly see why.

Anyway, that’s probably enough playing with tech for now – I need to go and cook dinner!

I’ve recently added a page about the Constant Librarian, so you can find out a little more about who I am and why I’m here. I’m remaining anonymous for the moment (although those who know me will be able to identify me!), but this may change in the future when I become a little more confident about my voice.

I’m unlikely to get going on blogging much before the end of February, due to being involved in an ‘am dram’ production. However, I’m pleased to report that this production has a fabulous line about the value of public libraries!

The play is ‘The Day After The Fair’ by Frank Harvey, after Thomas Hardy’s short story ‘On The Western Circuit’. I play Edith, who, when asked to explain how she knows so much about the options available to single mothers for securing child maintenance from absent fathers, says:

“I should do. I spent a whole hour in the public library reading it up!”

Public libraries – supporting single mothers back in the Victorian era. Individuals’ rights may have changed over the years (to a lesser or greater degree), but libraries are no less needed and valued.

If you’re on Twitter, look out for the hashtag #savelibraries for posts about protecting libraries from the current round of cuts.

This is the domain of the Constant Librarian! I’ll post more soon about what I mean by that name, so please stay tuned and hopefully you’ll find out a little more about the wonderful world of those whose lifeblood is information in all its varied forms…