The Postmodern Library

Social theorists argue postmodern society is characterised by an emphasis on plurality, a weakening of the high/low culture dichotomy, and a rejection of the authority of grand narratives; ‘big stories’ that attempt to explain the world – such as science, religion, for example.

The movement from a modern to a postmodern society can be seen in many facets of the library. In this post I’ll be musing on three different aspects of the library and how they relate to postmodernity; library design; public libraries; and academic libraries.

Library Design

This is perhaps where postmodernism is most apparent.

Postmodern architecture rejects the functional design of modern architecture, where the building is designed round its purpose, in favour of aesthetics.

Another aspect of postmodernism is pastiche; the borrowing of elements from other styles, or historical periods. In this way, there may be a juxtaposition of classical elements with cutting edge design.

The Harold Washington Library Centre in Chicago mixes old and new design – credit:

The Information Commons here in Sheffield is an excellent example of a postmodern library, both in its architecture, and in its use of space inside – catering for a variety of learning styles.

The Information Commons – credit:

Public Libraries

Some may argue that public libraries are a product of modernity, as they promote grand narratives of education, professional knowledge, and bureaucracy [1]. However, an important manifestation of postmodernity is pluralism, and this is reflected in the need for pluralistic library services for previously marginalised groups. Postmodern society is increasingly diverse, and public libraries should be, and are, responding to this in their provision.

Additionally, community-run libraries, though generally seen as a last resort for public libraries faced with closure, could be argued as a weakening of power of the grand narrative of overarching government.

Academic Libraries

When considering academic libraries, again pluralism is relevant. With changes in pedagogy to accept and for a range of learning styles, libraries too have had to change how they cater for students who may wish to work in a variety of ways [2].

The IC has a range of study spaces to suit all needs – credit:

The Information Commons does just this, with a number of study spaces suited to different needs.

There are still the traditional silent study areas and individual desks, but students also have the choice of group study areas and bookable rooms, as well as flexible spaces to arrange how you wish.

This is all of course open to interpretation, and many authors argue that we are not even postmodern yet, rather society is in a stage of late, or high, modernity [3]. Either way, it is clear, particularly in the case of library design, that there has been a movement away from the traditional library and that change is occurring.

[1] Black, A. & Muddiman, D. (1997). Understanding Community Librarianship: The Public Library in Post Modern Britain, Aldershot: Averbury.

[2] Brophy, P. (2000). The Academic Library, London: Facet Publishing.

[3] Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and Self-identity: self and society in the late modern age, Cambridge: Polity.

Volunteering in Sheffield

After hearing about the Conversation Club on Tuesday, I decided to go along to the session on the following Friday. I am not a spontaneous person, so this was very much out of my comfort zone, especially as I knew it would involve communicating with people of varying levels of English. However, I was brave, and it’s always rewarding to do things that challenge you.

I arrived quite early, so I was feeling a bit awkward, but actually it gave me time to sit down with one of the organisers and find out a bit more about the club, the English lessons they provide, and the charity ASSIST who run it. This prepared me for when the rest of the club arrived, as it was very noisy and busy. Everyone was very welcoming, which is probably to be expected since it’s organised around chatting!

I chatted for a short while with one man, though I didn’t find out where he was originally from, about cycling and painting. When he went into the English class, I chatted with a lovely man from Saudi Arabia. An older lady from North Africa chatted with us, which was quite useful as they both spoke Arabic, so if there were any difficulties in communication we could work it out! I then listened to her read out loud, helping out with pronunciation and any words she did not understand. After this I realise how difficult it is to describe English words. Things like “such a…”, or “really”. And of course, trying to explain librarianship is difficult! Luckily, most of the people had heard of or used libraries, so ‘library’ was a word they could understand.

I am currently writing an essay on public library services for UK ethnic minorities. Although the Conversation Club isn’t run by the library, Burngreave Library advertises it, and there is a library drop-in session on the Conversation Club’s Wednesday event. One of the organisers told me about the 3 Book Challenge sessions she runs in Burngreave Library, and I’d love to help out but it’s unfortunately when I have a class. Perhaps I’ll be a bit more flexible next term when I’m doing my dissertation. I hope to go to the Conversation Club again, though it’ll be sporadic as my Fridays are looking pretty full. They didn’t seem to mind though, as most people come and go anyway.

I felt really good afterwards, feeling I had been brave and spontaneous!

Public Lending Right – it’s not often the Government gives AWAY money!

This week, for the Public Libraries class, we were given an introduction to Public Lending Right, by Jim Parker.

I had no idea what PLR was until this week, so it was a fantastic insight into something that’s not necessarily library-related, but very interesting and I’m glad I now know about.

Authors can claim 6.05 pence per library loan. Image Credit: Spotty Hippo, Flickr

Public Lending Right comes under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and is the right for authors, and other contributors to books such as illustrators, to receive payment from the Government for use of their works in libraries. Basically, authors receive a sum for each library loan, data for which PLR collects from library authorities.

Around 40 countries have some kind of PLR set up, and it became an EU Directive in 1992. This means that all EU countries muct have a PLR system, and those countries that wish to join the EU must either set one up or have it set up. PLR in the UK has been around since 1979, after authors campaigned for the right to payment, though it was Denmark who were the first, setting theirs up in 1946.

Jim gave us some statistics, which highlight the fact that libraries are making a wide range of books available, and that the public are borrowing a range of books. There are 40,000 authors registered, 24,000 of which receive payment, and 211 of whom receive the maximum payment amount.  The rate per loan is 6.05 pence, which is down from 6.25 pence last year.

Through the collection of library loans data, PLR also collect a lot of information about what it is people are reading. For example, most borrowed authors, most borrowed titles, and loans by category.

After the presentation, we had an opportunity to ask questions. Someone raised the issue of ghost writers, and whether they receive any payments. It’s tricky because their name isn’t on the title page, and the ‘author’ has to vote them in. For example, Michael Cain did, and they went 50/50, which is lovely.

We were also asked to keep an eye on the PLR website this month, as a public consultation will be taking place regarding the location of the PLR. The service will continue, but the current office is being abolished, and it looks likely to move to the British Library if not voted for no change.

I really enjoyed this class, as it was something a little bit different. It’s always great to hear from other complementary services and professions, and presentations like this open my eyes to the social and political context in which libraries are situated. Plus, authors have to register for PLR, so the more people who know about it, the better!

National Libraries Day at the Sheffield Central Library

Today is National Libraries Day, a day of celebration and support for libraries across the country, which also marks a year of protests against library closures.

Sheffield Central Library hosted events throughout the day, aimed at all types of library users. There was singing and playing for children, a creative writing workshop, and a tour for those interested in how the library works and what services they offer.

A newspaper from 1820, including stories about a mysterious power outage in the gas lamps, and vice in central Sheffield.

I went on the tour, which was a great insight into what the library can offer, but also the parts that you wouldn’t see as a regular user. We saw the main reading rooms, such as the Children & Young People’s Library and the Local Studies Library, where we were able to look at some old photographs, newspapers and maps of Sheffield.

The tour guide informed us about some of the services they offer, including Picture Sheffield, a database of digitised images, and Help Yourself, which provides information on all sorts of groups and organisations. The library also has the largest Climbing collection outside of the National Mountaineering Library, which must be very popular in this part of the country. We also saw the stacks, of which there are two levels under the library, and the ‘Strong Room’ where all the valuable and precious material is kept. It looked like a prison cell, with bars and a huge metal door! Here the tour guide showed us some rare material, including a hand-illustrated prayer-book from 1490, and a metallagraphica from the 1670s, in which the author explains metals are living things that grow back when you dig them up!

I also went along to ‘Quiz a Red Hat’. The Red Hats (named after the poem Warning by Jenny Joseph) are a group of retired librarians who meet up regularly, connected by their experiences working in libraries. It was wonderful to chat to these ladies, who somehow knew we were all librarianship students as soon as we said hello. We must give off a librarian aura! Hearing about Sheffield libraries in the past, and their experiences working in different types of libraries around the country, was a lovely experience.

Throughout the day there were musicians and singers performing in the foyer, which was a lovely background to the events and set the tone as a celebration of the library.

Oh yes, I remember why I want to be a librarian!

This post is about a visit to two local libraries last week in the Sheffield area, as part of my masters. The visits were great, and really reminded me what great work libraries can do (hence the title).

I’m really sorry, but this post is quite hefty!

The first visit was to Chapeltown Library and Children’s Centre. The library is co-located with the Children’s Centre, and has a large community room for use by different groups, such as baby weighing, or breast-feeding advice. The library was really nice, and has aged well considering the building was erected in the 1980s. It had a feel very much like the public library I used to work at during Sixth Form College, as it was a similar size. The visit involved a quick look round, then a  discussion about the library and Sheffield libraries in general. The library has self issue machines which operate using RFID. These have proved a success, with very little complaint from the public. This was amazing to me, as I worked in Mersea Library when they implemented RFID, and the public, although on the whole please with it, were quite vocal when they disliked it. I also sympathised with the library staff, as I know how much work must have been involved, as I’ve been there myself!

After another look around, we got back on the coach and drove to the public library at Southey Owlerton, which is very new and impressive. It is part of the SOAR (Southey Owlerton Area Regeneration) project, and it is located in The Learning Centre. The building was lovely and bright, and the layout of the library really made good use of limited floor space. We were given a quick tour by the acting manager Daryl (who had amazing dreadlocks). The building has many great ‘green’ features, such as motion detecting lighting to save energy, and a ‘green roof’ which is a wildlife garden covered in wildflowers (currently covered in logs and dirt). The library has several schemes to get users involved through volunteering, for example children can help out adults at IT classes, and the building as a Learning Centre has several classrooms and an IT suite. It seems very much embedded in the area, and was built with a huge amount of consultation with the local community.

After our tour we went up to one of the rooms for tea and biscuits, and for a discussion with Daryl, the Head of Services and his soon-to-be replacement. I was really honoured that they took time out to take part in the day, and I really hope they all enjoyed it as much as I did!

This discussion was fantastic, and covered a huge range of topics. We covered the current economic climate and it’s impact on Sheffield libraries. It seems that they are doing better than most, but have still have to reduce staff numbers, and will have to reduce opening hours in the future.  We were also informed about the planning and building of the new library, and the consultation with the public. It was really interesting to hear that in the past changes to libraries were often done behind closed doors, and the public just had to deal with it. With this new library, the community were asked ‘what makes a good district library?’, and the ideas were stemmed from their opinions.

Another in-depth topic was the classification vs categorisation debate. Currently, Sheffield libraries categorise their fiction and non-fiction sections in community libraries. This is because their experience has been that users come to the library to browse, making the ritual of finding a shelf-mark on the catalogue and searching out that one particular book redundant. Instead, they can find a section they enjoy and books similar to it in the same area, i.e. Romance, Westerns, Science Fiction etc. However, the central library in Sheffield does use the Dewey Decimal System, because of the sheer size of stock.

Someone asked whether they felt there was a particular demographic they were not reaching, or were actively encouraging. The Learning Centre is a very new library, and as such they have been able to start from scratch. They are much busier than the previous local library in the area, and feel they have attracted a much larger demographic – success! However, a problem they felt was that there is quite a clear divide between different groups of users and the time of day. For example, during the day they get many adults in the library, but at 3.05, when the school just across the road lets out, the library is chocker with kids. This is absolutely fantastic, especially getting teenagers in, but it does mean adults are a little put off using the library at this time. The team are working to resolve this issue, though it does seem to be quite a small problem considering the successes they’ve had, in my opinion.

Ok, I really should stop there, or else I’ll be gushing about libraries and ‘dishy Daryl’ for weeks. I really enjoyed these visits, and they reminded me a lot of the visits on the traineeship at Oxford. I was particularly flattered that such senior members of the service came to meet us and discuss all things public libraries.