The demise of the public library

 

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Reading books has become a dying art and its death has turned our public libraries into ghost towns. Can this trend be reversed? An edited version of this report was published on The Sunday Times.

There are 54 public libraries spread across Malta and Gozo, with over 21,000 members across the whole network.  And yet, according to the EU Cultural Participation survey published a mere three months ago, 51per cent of Maltese said they have no interest in visiting a library, while a further 35 per cent said they had no time to do so.

Two per cent of those surveyed pointed to a limited choice or poor quality of service, despite the fact that the Central Library in Floriana alone contains over 105,000 books, items of reference and audiovisual material.

Given these dismal statistics, is there still a point to use funds on public libraries? Has the general lack of interest in reading, coupled with the advent of e-books (that are often available for free) led to the demise of the public library? And, more importantly, can the trend be reversed?

Judging a book by its cover

Appearances matter, of course. I first visit the Central Library in Floriana early on a weekday morning. As expected, it is empty, save for one lone librarian. It takes him a while to actually register the fact that there is a visitor.

The aisles are all empty, with many books scattered messily on their shelves. The vibe is truly depressing, and it hits me that my earlier analogy of a ghost town is not as fanciful as it sounds.

I go for a second visit on a Saturday morning. There are a couple of parents with children, and about three adults roaming the aisles. Libraries are meant to be silent, but this one would give the Addolorata cemetery a good run for its money.

The scene in front of me speaks for itself: Malta’s public libraries are definitely in trouble. New members do enrol – 2013 saw a total of 5534 applicants – but these are somehow not then translating into foot traffic.

Of course, the problem is not limited to Malta. The same Cultural Participation Survey that yielded worrying statistics about reading habits in Malta revealed equally damning figures for other countries. Reading as a regular pastime is on the decrease world-wide, and all public libraries are suffering in the wake of the new trend.

The New York Library is a case in point. As part of a drive to renovate image and facilities, several branches across the city were closed down and the real estate sold off. The closure of these lending libraries meant that the flagship building could no longer be retained as offering purely research facilities, but had to incorporate book-lending services.

And yet, all is not bleak. In a drive to attract New Yorkers, the library is in process of setting up even longer hours than the 8pm cutoff time it currently employs. And on Sundays, it is business as usual.

This trend to offer hours that are convenient to working families is reflected in other libraries world-wide. In London, the main library stays open till 8pm three times a week. Saturdays are a full business day until 5.30pm. Amsterdam’s public library opens everyday, Sundays included, till 10pm.

Malta’s public libraries, in stark contrast, close at 5.45pm, at practically the same time that most people finish work (and students finish their homework and/or extra-curricular activities). During the summer time, the opening hours are curtailed even further, with civil service half-days kicking in. Saturdays do not yield more joy, with the Central Library closing at 1pm, while on Sunday it just doesn’t open.

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Showcasing the protagonists

Of course, even with the most convenient opening hours in the world, the issue of lack of interest still requires addressing. Mark Camilleri, current chairman of the National Book Council, says the council is trying to address this problem by tackling it from various angles, including by donating new books and by promoting the use of public libraries through social media.

“However, this problem must also be tackled in a comprehensive way through the education system.”

In New York, one project that has met with a measure of success involves taking the library’s online catalogue into public schools. The project is being carried out in partnership with the Department of Education, and some 100 schools have already been given access.

Thanks to the project, which has been dubbed MyLibraryNYC, books are delivered from public libraries directly to schools. Books are listed in one, student-friendly online catalogue that combines the collections of the school and public libraries in one place, enabling students and teachers to locate, hold and order delivery of books to their school.

A multi-discipline approach has also ensured that national libraries in major cities are viewed as a cultural hub, rather than as simply a place where to pick a couple of books and leave. With exhibitions, concerts, talks and tours organised on a regular basis, the buildings themselves become a place to hang out.

This view is echoed by Ġorġ Mallia, former Chairman of the National Book Council, who insists that public libraries remain relevant if suitably converted to the needs of today’s society.

“I have visited quite a few libraries worldwide, and found them all to be buzzing hubs of activity. Online media has made us more insular, but libraries can actually be one of those public spaces serving a number of purposes, that can also satisfy the need of wired and digital generations.”

Dr Mallia believes that the central role of the library – imparting the culture of reading – needs to remain. Although this has traditionally been the exclusive domain of books, Dr Mallia points out that nowadays this culture can be diffused by a large number of possible channels.

“The library must be aware of this, and work to meet the change in society by changing itself,” he says.

How can this be achieved?

“Well, the library must still contain physical books. Those should not be replaced by their digital counterparts, but e-books do need to be added to the mix, as an extension, rather than as a replacement.”

Although a study on the impact and feasibility of e-books on public libraries is indeed being carried out within the central library, this is an issue that has not yet been concretely acted upon in Malta, outside of the Digitization Strategy and Framework for the National Library of Malta. The latter project, which is still being implemented, is limited to materials related to Malta’s history.

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A twist in the plot

Even so, Dr Mallia says that incorporating digital books would only be the most basic of changes needed.

“Libraries need to understand the cultural enhancement that society needs. They must understand the roles of popular culture in enticing the young, taking all lessons on board and transforming them into activities. Books (physical or digital) are instigators and motivators, but not necessarily perpetrators,” he adds.

In some of the more innovative and enterprising initiatives he has seen happen in libraries abroad, Dr Mallia describes how he has attended sessions in which ‘living’ books were loaned to library patrons.

“People in different jobs, or of different persuasions, were actually taken home and quizzed. I have also seen libraries creating spaces that can be used for public fora; orchestras playing in front of libraries and even, in one case, a rock concert. The events were followed with talks by authors of books on the subject.”

The central library in Malta, in fact, claims to organise a number of events and educational programmes during the year, with public talks catering for both children and adults. A spokesperson from the library quotes “informational sessions on various subjects, from health issues to cultural promotion; educational games, films and crafts for children; reading and learning strategies for parents and guardians; and information literacy sessions”.

These events, the spokesperson says, are “usually held randomly to promote new acquisitions or linked to special occasions such as Carnival, Easter, World Book Day, Library Day, Halloween and Christmas”.

A look at the official  Facebook page, which counts 1174 likes at the time of going to print, yields only a list of weekly story-telling sessions for children up to the age of six and very sporadic screening of children’s movies when going back all the way to September.

Although a step in the right direction, these activities go nowhere near achieving the holistic and cross-discipline approach that would be needed to reel in a regular audience of adults and children – a conclusion that library management seems to acknowledge, with “constraints in human and financial resources” cited as the reason why we lack behind in these areas.

And yet, there are many avenues that could open the way to distinct improvements. Dr Mallia’s concluding words perhaps sum up the situation most effectively:

“Libraries need to be landscaped, interior designed and attractive, with sitting areas that are very comfortable, and with lots of light. And we need librarians whose jobs do not simply involve the processing of books, but rather are attendants of culture and stimulators of discussions that will then, yes, lead to reading.”

Looks like it’s time to write a new chapter.

Read what Chris Gruppetta (Merlin Publishers) has to say about reviving reading as a regular activity, here.

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Comments

  1. Ros says:

    Besides from the generic desolate feeling that haunts the Belt is-Sebh library, there is also the matter of so-called librarians who are thicker than the Encyclopedia Britannica’s spine. The last time I went there myself, I had 4 – yes, 4 – ‘librarians’ stare at me blankly for asking whether they hads a copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. They appeared to have never heard of Milton. They didn’t have Paradise Lost either. All they had was a collection of Milton’s works, which included Paradise Lost – and it was is a deplorable state :-/ full of biro scribbles that one would expect to see should the unfortunbate book fall into the sticky hands of a toddler who managed to steal a pen.