Magazine article The Spectator

'Take a Break from Shopping'

Magazine article The Spectator

'Take a Break from Shopping'

Article excerpt

On 22 September, a new flagship 'Idea Store' will open to replace Whitechapel library in east London, which closed its wood-panelled doors on 6 August. Idea Stores (this is the third in Tower Hamlets) have book collections, but are emphatically 'not just a library', including everything from cafés to careers advice, family classes to aromatherapy sessions. According to the publicity, these are 'neutral safe spaces' where people can 'come for a coffee, to meet friends, to take a break from shopping'. Reading is almost discouraged. As you enter Bow's Idea Store, you see the café on the left and the internet stations on the right; the books line a walkway curving around the back of the building. It's all open-plan glass and plastic, so there's little chance of finding a quiet spot to think.

A new generation of 'not just' libraries has sprung up over the past few years, including Peckham library in south London, Discovery Centres in Hampshire, and new libraries in Norwich and Bournemouth. This is the fruit of New Labour's cultural policy, which encouraged libraries to give priority to the delivery of social and economic objectives over boring old books. The 2003 Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) document 'Framework for the Future' highlighted libraries' role in developing 'digital skills and services, community cohesion and civic values'. Education figured in only vague terms ('study in the broadest sense of the word'), or at the most elementary level ('[reading] guarantees, warranties and small print').

While Idea Stores may have looked innovative when the first one opened in May 2002, the gloss is now wearing off. In recent months, two reports have challenged the foundations of the new library policy. A report by the Parliamentary Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport noted that public spending on libraries in England and Wales is up -- reaching £900 million per year, from around £750 million in the early 1980s -- but book stocks and book issues are on the slide. Around 9 per cent of library funding is now spent on books, compared with around 17 to 18 per cent in the 1980s; while just 300 million books were issued in 2003, down from nearly 600 million in 1979 and 430 million in 1997. The select committee concluded:

'traditional materials (books, newspapers and journals) must be the bedrock upon which the library services rest'. Meanwhile, a report by Libri, a charity for libraries, argued that 'librarians have misdirected the funds available', and have 'failed to deliver the book-based services which the public expects and demands'.

While the new library policy has an aversion to anything that smells of dusty book stacks, it doesn't know what it wants instead. Some cultural leaders can't even bring themselves to use the term 'library' for fear that it would send the 'customers' running, but replacement terms such as Discovery Centres and Idea Stores are tellingly vague. At Bow, each book stack is headed with a visitor's best idea: 'my best idea was to learn to drive'; 'my best idea was to start using the internet'. You don't learn everything in books is the message, which is rather like a football stadium putting up signs announcing that football isn't the only sport in the world. It seems that libraries today want to be about everything, from community connections to everyday life decisions. …

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