Libraries: the Value of Just in Case, Not Just in Time


I am using the blog this time to explain my anxiety that society risks losing too much as the materialism of ‘value’ replaces the experience of centuries of unquantifiable practice and purpose. It is my concern that too many libraries are under threat from the bean counters. Libraries have always existed as places for the ‘just in case’ event, providing the go-to location when you want sustenance of the mind in some way – knowledge, leisure, curiosity, information, entertainment.

Guest blog by Ruth Bird, Bodleian Law Librarian at the University of Oxford

However the world is in thrall to the ‘just in time’ mentality of financial wunderkinds who do not value those ‘old fashioned’ concepts, looking instead at the pragmatic usability of everything, seeing a book that lives on a shelf and is only taken off once a year, or once a decade, as an unnecessary encumbrance, not earning its space in a world where everything has to be costed, to be accountable for its existence. To this way of thinking, it is more justifiable to pay over the odds at that time of need to obtain what you want from another provider, be it an ILL or a document delivery, or pay for use online, than to have the item at hand. It is a mentality that thinks you always know what you want and can go and locate it wherever. It makes no allowance for the serendipity of accidental discovery on a shelf, in a collection, of some title you would never have known of or would not have discovered in any other way than by browsing a shelf.

Books on library shelves have not found themselves there by accident. Over time someone has made choices of what should or should not join this group of books. A library shelf differs from a shelf in a bookshop because it has no commercial imperative behind it, no publisher pushing a title, no bookseller holding saleable stock, no shop assistant displaying attractive book jackets. In the library old and new rub along together, gathering the patina of age at different rates, making comfortable neighbours with new chums interfiled as acquired. The utilitarian world threatens the existence of any activity that cannot demonstrate its immediate value and purpose. It cannot admit to a concept such as ‘the general good’ because this is not measurable. Yet the whole basis of the conception of libraries is the altruistic one of sharing resources for the general good at the time of need, be it today or in 20 years’ time.

In addition to their utility, the aesthetics of libraries cannot be ignored. Images are not enough to truly appreciate the joyous surroundings of beautifully conceived spaces which nurture the reader at every turn, enriching the senses as well as the brain. We are part way through a maelstrom of change in the world of books, publishing, electronic storage, online access, software and hardware innovation, and user attitudes. It is a dangerous time, not for us, but for the folks following us in 50 or a hundred years from now. Too many are happy to throw out the past for all the wrong reasons, dictated to by the narrowly focussed pragmatists, without an eye to the power shift from consumer to producer that accompanies such actions. Once you buy a book it is yours to have, to go back to, to give away, to donate, to lend, as you wish.

Once you buy an e-book it is restricted; you must maintain the software on your device; it must be linked to your login. You cannot loan it to a friend. Depending on platforms – from Kindle to Nook – you can’t move the ebook – if you change between the different platforms, you have to leave your e-book purchase behind, often lost to you forever. When online subscriptions are cancelled, you may lose access to everything you have paid for over the lifetime of your electronic subscription. People may joke about endless back-sets of National Geographic filling thrift shops, but with those, you subscribed for some years, you cancelled the sub, but you still had the tangible items you had paid for.If you had bought an electronic subscription to the same magazine in the early 1990s you may have received issues on 5 and a quarter inch floppy disks. By 2000 you would no longer have had a computer that could read these disks. The same sub in the late 90s could have come on the 3 and a half inch floppy, and by 2005 no new computer could read it either.

In all this time your book or magazine in paper could have sat untouched on its bookshelf, but when you came back to it, the technology was still functional. You could open it without instructions, the pages still turned, there was no fear of network downtime preventing you from accessing it, and it had not been superseded by an incompatible version of reader software. Until we have uniform hardware (with software) that operate as seamlessly as a book, and provides the durability and readability over centuries, rather than half decades, we really need to defy the bean counters and be as brave as the Melbourne City Council has been, and continue to invest in libraries, and envisage an ongoing bright, and certainly broader based, future for them.

Ruth Bird is the Bodleian Law Librarian at the University of Oxford. She has worked in law firm and academic libraries for over twenty years. She is a member of the Editorial Board of Legal Information Management. She has been a Board member, and is currently First Vice President of the International Association of Law Libraries. Her posts can be found on Slaw, Canada's online legal magazine, (republication authorized).

Image Trinity College Library courtesy of Irish Welcome Tours' Flickr stream.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to the Peace Palace Library.