Speech : Tim Coates : to Conference "Libraries in the Digital Age"


Tim Coates' Speech to Conference : "Libraries in the Digital Age" : held at
Burlington House on 14th October 2010

In this speech I am going to announce the formation of a new ‘not-for-profit’, non-governmental body which is being launched specifically with the aim of helping to bring improvement to the public library service.  If you will allow me to explain some of my own views about the state of the service then I shall describe what the new body is intended to do.

We are often asked to imagine what public libraries will be like in the future.  Sometimes, as today, when the topic is about libraries in the digital age, changes in technical methods are under discussion, sometimes it is just the march of time and the changing nature of our society.  Often, at the moment, we are asked whether libraries can survive in a time of public austerity.

I think that the right way to address these questions is to understand the different reasons why people use public libraries and try to look at each of them separately.   In doing that we begin to see how extraordinarily important libraries are and how change can be used to improve them and keep them up to date and how priorities can be identified that make it possible to do that.

Changing technology is not the only influence that will make a difference.  The economy, education, the increasingly fascinating international origin of our population are all key, but so, too are changing standards of design and people’s expectation and more than anything what is being written and being published and is available to read.

Of course public libraries are not just about providing current fiction or non fiction, of the kind that grabs headlines when editions are printed as ebooks.  That is a small part of the role they play.  Families with small children not only borrow books, but for them the buildings, their design and their accessibility, their collections of stories and picture books are essential issues.  So are the story times and playtime readings.  These are not matters of electronics.

For schoolchildren who have nowhere to go when they come out of school, the library is an essential place to do homework and to work with books and with friends.  The issue here is not about digital provision but about opening hours, space and basic dignity, cleanliness and privacy, all of which are just as important as any technical advances.   They are matters of high standards of interior design.

For older people who read voraciously all those books for which their working life left insufficient time, it is not only the stock, but also the proximity and neighbourliness of a library that means they do not have to make a bus or car trip to the shopping centre.   For them, location, opening hours and comfort are essential ingredients, many of which need improving.

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