Here's my latest column for the Caledonian Mercury - a small intervention in the debate about public sector cuts, but a large paen to my favourite kind of public building, a big city library. But also about how our defense of these spaces has to creatively consider what the Net, and e-books, are doing to our conception of public writing and reading. As ever, all comments welcome.
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There is much righteous and articulate protest at the moment about the fate of libraries, in the era of deficit-justified public sector cuts. The children's writer Philip Pullman has delivered an all-time brilliant speech in defence of libraries, as spaces of generosity and civility against the exhausting competitiveness of market culture.
And me, I'm the world's greatest fan of libraries. Many of my weekdays in Scotland are spent at the Mitchell Library - huge, comfortable, well-wifi'd, splendidly lunchable, still stocked with university-level resources for general public use, and about to launch its serious-minded books festival, Aye Write.
The library was the original "third place", a zone for people to contemplate and connect between work and home, well before branded coffee-shops and boutique malls. And any society worth its salt (perhaps Great, rather than Big) would be thinking about how to build on the public library - a supportive civic platform for new generations of workers and players, part-timers and freelancers, parents and singletons, trying to find the resources to shape their lives in unstable times.
Suffice to say that the Coalition's vision of deprofessionalised, volunteer-run libraries doesn't quite match up.
But beyond defending libraries as part of our social commonwealth, we do have to grapple a little with some bits of technology - the internet, and now e-books - that complicate a simple battleground of cuts and anti-cuts.
The evolution of my beloved Mitchell, over the thirty years I've been using it, is the paradigm example. When I first entered as an undergraduate in 1981, you'd trot upstairs to an almost literally transcendent Philosophy And Religion department, or wander over to a Social Sciences or Humanities or Technology and Science floor - the proper academic disciplines, open to the passing punter.
All of them were stacked with the latest journals. |ndeed, my first experience of surfing knowledge, before Netscape and a plastic mouse came into my life, was the Mitchell's periodicals shelves. Some urbane librarian had placed Harper's Magazine next to New Scientist next to Electric Word (the predecessor to Wired magazine). I'd be lost for hours in the spectacle, greedily putting together my world views, fleshing out my hunches.
But the Mitchell I face today, as I settle down with my Macbook to sup from the municipal wireless, is both much less, and only a little more. A scant periodicals list, and once mighty realms of knowledge scrunched into rooms on single floors. Entire floors given over to what seems like genealogy and Glasgow nostalgia; a business section which at least gives you free access to online commercial news archives, but which otherwise seems overly un-enterprising.
However, the aforementioned cyberspace- and a generous supply of electric power-points - turns what would otherwise seem like a shell of its former glory, into a comfortable, solid basis for the hive-mind of freelance Glasgow. I regularly meet film-makers like Peter McDougall, or think-tankers like Graham Leicester, or writers like Ewan Morrison, or any number of non-office-able dudes, pecking away at their mobile or fixed keyboards at various levels of the building.
The webcafe on the ground floor is easily the most cosmopolitan space in this city - every shade and brogue on the planet using their allotted free hour to throw virtual tendrils of love, money or power, as the globalized world spins them around.
And the books are still there, now lendable as well as for reference. But there's no doubt that the internetting of libraries brings a challenge to the librarian's core vocation. At this point, we enter into the babel of debates about the future of the book in the digital and networked age - and quite rightly, the librarian asks some very sharp questions.
What does it mean to manage and curate a collection for the benefit of the citizen, if - say - 50% of the same reference material can be accessed via a smart phone on the bus home? Given its current state of patchiness and murky commercial ambition, how could something like Google Books even remotely replace a good municipal supply of canonical and disciplinary texts?
The new boom in e-books (due to attractive and efficient new e-readers like the Kindle and iPad) is ensnared in a thicket of digital copyrights. The publishing business has observed the meltdown of the music business, and is trying to make sure they aren't as easily eviscerated by the copy-anything power of the web.
Yet, the librarian asks, what does it mean to lend a book in this environment? Does the idea of turning off the reader's access to the e-book from a central point - remember Amazon's accidental removal of Orwell's 1984 from Kindle - actually revive the notion of fines and returns? Or will a mad plethora of competing e-book standards, copyrights and devices be too much for a public library system to cope with, if digital devices ever become the dominant mode of book consumption?
I'm a Kindle user since just before Xmas: and in terms of my mobile lifestyle, I am thrilled to be amassing a portion of the research library for my next book in something I can slip between the pages of a Ryman's notepad. For me, no more slow separation of my vertebrae due to a volume-overloaded back-pack for me. But this seems, and is, a real privatisation of my resources: a step back from those tendencies the library and the web share, to make information and knowledge a commons.
I just realised the other day that I can't, or can't easily, lend any of these quite cheaply acquired books to anyone. That feels wrong, retrograde. I wonder if these restrictions are only a hiatus on the way to the state of stoicism about copyright that we have in the music business.
Will the book become just as decommodified as the album or song? Less an object to be reliably sold, more a stimulus to community - a community that will pay for scarce pleasures (the presence of the author, his work made into a beautiful object), but will expect story and concept to be cheap or free? Yes, a fertile currency of discussion - but hardly a chunk of pulped wood to be sold with a hidden margin.
So much is up in the air at the moment, so many pieces yet to settle. But the last thing I'd want to go along with is the kind of glib technophilia so characteristic of many self-proclaimed "social entrepreneurs" - that there is some inevitable new order of readers and writers bubbling up naturally from the dot-com chaos.
As a CyberNat - in the best sense, I hope - I would want there to be a nation-state dimension to how we think about digital literary copyright. And even if those new copyright regimes are European or transnational, I would want a Scottish voice to be arguing in those halls of power for the classic librarian's virtues of fair use and public access - even in the age of electronic ink and touch-screens.
But however wireless and permanently connected we are - however much we can make any coffee house our own research centre, with the right devices - we should value the enabling, non-commercial capacity and stability of a public library. It's a physical space we should give to ourselves, to honour our own seriousness about our lives. It can improve and develop, to complement our new tools and sensibilities. The library is to be defended, not emptied.