The library is open: what does that actually mean?
The library is closed and it has to be opened again as soon as possible: that is the opinion set out in Open de poorten naar de verbeelding (Open the gates to imagination), an article in Dutch newspaper NRC. In general, not just during corona times, advocating for an open library is something I naturally welcome. But what I don’t like is primarily meaning that people can come and borrow books again. Because that is what author Tineke Bennema specifically refers to:
“The amount of free time during the corona crisis offers opportunities to revalue reading among young people and reading parents. Dear Cabinet, especially in times of lockdown, open the gates to the treasure chambers of the imagination.”
But the library is closed. That is why Dutch novelist and columnist Özcan Akyol calls to open it.
Or isn’t library closed at all? In the Twitter comments on Bennema’s article, many librarians respond with the message that the library is very open already. Numerous examples of book takeaway services and other initiatives to provide members with fresh reading materials pass by. And the boundless commitment of library staff is by no means lacking. But is that enough to say that you are open? Or at least, given the situation, as open as possible? You might just think that a library that provides books, physical or digital, completely fulfills its mission.
From connection to collection?
Do we take a step back in the quest that is better known as from collection to connection? David Lankes says the following in his blog The “New Normal” Agenda for Librarianship:
“To say we are about community and only be a source of ebooks in a pandemic is hypocrisy. Yes, our fellow citizens need ebooks, but they need compassion, connection, and community dedicated to their full well-being.
We must fight for a new normal with our collections, our buildings, but mostly, with our expertise.”
When checking in with Lankes about what he means with this statement he says that in his view the focus on ebooks shows an excessive emphasis on library collections. He also has reservations about the additional growing dependence on publishers and suppliers. He likes to place the book takeaway service phenomenon in the local perspective, although he also states that a demonstrated necessity is paramount.
But of course there is much to say about that necessity. I by no means deny that takeaway and delivery services and free ebook collections would not meet a need. The enthusiastic reactions to it, from both users and library staff, only support this. “We are overloaded with presents“, said Sophie Bruers of Tilburg Public Library in another NRC article. But the public image is very much one of a library in the most traditional sense: a place for readers to borrow books. National ebook services such as ThuisBieb (HomeLibrary) only support this image.
That is great news for avid readers and I don’t want to take anything away from them either. But what was available for all those other groups that normally use the library? If you had searched for it, you would certainly have found something, but it certainly was not presented on a silver platter.
Also in the reopening protocols, drawn up by the VOB (Dutch Public Library Association), on the phased reopening of libraries, the primary focus is on the collection and the provision of lending materials, also with regard to the protocol for welcoming primary school pupils (“what children can do in the library (looking for books, being read to) is for each library to decide for themselves”..)
Question of conscience
I understand that choices have to be made, but those being made at least compel myself, and hopefully others, to a question of conscience: how do we see our main assignment? Despite all the innovation programs of recent years, libraries, with some exceptions (or in the words of Mark Deckers, a small piece of luck in a major accident), conveyed a very traditional image during the last couple of weeks. And I am concerned about the possible downside of that.
Article in Dutch here.