Libraries, the universe and everything


Untangling my thoughts about the unlibrary
November 29, 2010, 17:59
Filed under: Libraries | Tags:

There has been a little flurry of interest around the concept of the unlibrary of late, both on Twitter and in the blogosphere, following the launch of an unlibrary in London. (See  also 4th paragraph from end and comments on this recent post by Jo Alcock.)

The actual concept of an unlibrary – a dedicated space within the library building in which people can interact, engage with web stuff, use the facilities in a non-traditional way – is fab. As is having unlibrarians to assist/support/mediate. So why is my gut reaction to this a rather negative one?

Taking another ‘un’ format as an exemplar, unconferences allow organisers to do something a bit different, they don’t seem detract from the standard conference concept, but rather give additional scope, choice and opportunities to fit medium to content in the most appropriate way for the subject and/or audience, so surely the same kind of relationship ought to be able to develop between the library and the unlibrary.

Perhaps I’m being over-defensive, but with all the talk around cutting libraries at the moment I must say that it feels to me like the unlibrary concept could well backfire if it gets adopted as further ammunition in the “conventional libraries are irrelevant to the Google generation” argument. Also, the two unlibrarians running the service in Crouch End are not librarians but are rather described as experts on social media and the future of the book in the digital age, which also makes me a little wary. Both of these things are clearly enormously valuable in almost any library setting (let alone an unlibrary one), and are perhaps indicative of skills all librarians should possess, but in an atmosphere of threats to library and information professionals I smell potential danger here as well.

However, I can also see unlibraries (equipped with their unlibrarians) as a great opportunity to add really useful services to the range of things libraries can offer (not to mention a tool for the promotion of existing electronic resources, and library spaces), and a helpful counterbalance to the “libraries are just about books” school of thought – thereby allowing libraries to attract different types of people, especially some of those who currently may not think their library has anything to offer them. I realise that many libraries already offer these kind of services, but maybe repackaging them as unlibraries might encourage more people to take notice of them.

Also, perhaps it’s just me, but doesn’t the term unlibrary sound kind of cool, a bit mysterious, maybe even a little bit sexy?! Perhaps a change of name might serve to dispel a few fusty dusty stereotypes, and bring the concept of libraries into the 21st century once and for all.

I’m still a little bit conflicted about this, and would love to hear what you think…

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6 Comments so far
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[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Crouch End Unlibrary, Emma Davidson. Emma Davidson said: Blogged: a few quick thoughts about the unlibrary concept http://bit.ly/f7dxgO #unlibrary […]

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This is a really interesting response to what we’re doing.Thanks!
By the way, I worked for public libraries, in Sheffield and Birmingham, for 14 yrs altogether, promoting them as an imagination service. Since when I’ve run the Poetry Soc and Booktrust with the amazing Bookstart scheme.
I’m delighted the library has given us space for the Unlibrary – it’s where it should be AND in challenging and changing times it’s important that creative writers and readers take control of making sure they get what they need culturally from the spaces and tools to hand. I hope the name points to the importance of what libraries offer and represent, as well as questioning assumptions. And I also see the Unlibrary as the place locally where all kinds of writers belong and from where they can best manage their publishing lives.

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Comment by Chris Meade

Thanks for commenting Chris, it’s great to get your input. The more I think about this the more I see it as a positive thing – there seem to be so many negative assumptions about libraries flying around, and challenging them by involving stakeholders, as well as presenting things in a new and thoughtful way, has got to be a big step in the right direction. (I also love the concept of public libraries as an imagination service!)

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Comment by Emma Davidson

I’ve used the Crouch End library a couple of times – going to open meetings there, though I haven’t actually used it as a workspace.

I like the idea of making use of spare space – particularly when libraries are under threat. (As a child and teenager, I spent a lot of time in libraries – I am a fan and worry that later generations may not have access to the same resources!)

Freeing up the space, making it open to people who can make use of it in novel, unconventional ways, makes a lot of sense to me.

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Comment by patrickhadfield

The crux of my worry about the term ‘unlibrary’ is that, as you say, it sets up a false dichotomy between cool, groovy ‘unlibraries’ and fusty old ‘libraries’, when really the idea is to show the wealth of things that ‘libraries’ can and should offer. Using a trendy word is likely to bring more people in–maybe because they already have a bad impression of libraries–and then having been enticed in they might reform their opinion. But is that result worth giving the impression that libraries are outmoded?

A tough question. Thanks for untangling your thoughts online – it’s helping me to work out what I think!

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Comment by Girl in the Moon

Thanks for this post, Emma. It echoes many of my initial thoughts.

Just thinking: If our (i.e. LIS profession) advocacy is constantly struggling with wrong/outdated concepts about ‘library’ and ‘librarian’ it might just be the solution to adopt ‘un’ widely?! If re-branding helps (esp. with prejudiced policitians and journalists) I’d be all for it.

Also, ‘unlibrarian’ could reflect the fact that many librarians didn’t intend to become one but rather happened to somehow fall into the profession (cf. http://libraryroutesproject.wikkii.com) I, for one, would actually like that title I think.

Anyway, thanks again for prodding my brain with your blog.

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Comment by Esther Arens




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