Victims of Success

This is an update of the presentation I gave to the Lancashire Libraries annual conference in 2010. I’ve always loved libraries and this was a chance to have my say on the past, present and future of libraries. Which is a much better title than the one I gave it. In my defense, the idea was to buffalo the crowd by starting as deliberately obtuse as possible and then connecting. Which is rather like Col. John R. Boyd’s OODA Loop, if you ask me. Not that anyone got that reference;)

Hello. My name is Richard Veevers, I’m single with one dependant child. I rent a flat in Clitheroe, the town I was born and lived in for 20 years before moving to Scotland
where I lived for nearly 10. Fifteen years ago I returned to Clitheroe and was
fortunate to find employment with the Libraries, where I’ve been and still am very
happy. I was previously employed in catering, mainly front of house positions
occasionally in the kitchen. I also spent time in administrative positions and several
other posts ranging from manual to management. At present I am studying for a
Mathematics degree with the Open University
For this presentation I would like to explain how I think libraries have suffered at
their own hands, how they have become victims of their own success.
To do this I’ll be covering areas including, but not limited to; Chaos Theory /
Fractal Geometry (A relativity young school of maths) and the U.S. Army General
John R Boyds’ O.O.D.A. Loop of Consciousness (compromising his holy trinity of
Heisenbergs’ Uncertainty Principle, Godels’ Incompleteness Theorem and, of
course, The Second Law of Thermodynamics.)
Please…Don’t leave just yet.
At least let me explain before you head for the door.
I’m assuming you will have NO knowledge of the above ideas, or that you may
have heard of them without knowing anything about them. I intend to give my
presentation by explaining rather than selling.
Let me begin by re-assuring you. Let me talk about things you are already familiar
with. Some uncontroversial Library history.
I am thinking here of private Libraries as opposed to the very earliest Libraries,
which tended be statistical, archived records of state.
The first Libraries in this sense must have been personal affairs. Displays of wealth
and power in ever larger accumulations of the written word.
I’d like to pause here and ask you to perform with me a “gedankenexperiment”, a
thought experiment. To imagine, if you will, what it would be like to be raised with
no knowledge of the written word. Not illiterate but someone who has never seen a
book or writing, never hearing anyone even talk about a book. Having no
awareness of reading and writing at all. Imagine what it would be like to be
exposed to reading and writing for the first time?
Please grant me the artistic license here to stereotype, in this case the stereotype of
the missionary and the native. I realize the dangers in stereotyping, but I hope it
will be suitable, even with these limitations.
I’d like you to imagine a meeting between these vastly different cultures.
Imagine a scene where native approaches missionary who is sat at a table
apparently holding a small stick, which is dipped into some black liquid and then
used to make marks on a thin piece of wood. Trying to explain what they are doing
the visitor gestures to their head and then to the markings they have made. Leaving
the native presumably as perplexed as before. They both notice that the ink pot is
empty. The missionary then says that they will ask their colleague for some more
ink. A short note is written and the native asked to deliver the note to another
missionary. The native delivers the note more confused than ever. It’s only when
the other missionary, after reading the note, gives the native the required ink that
the native begins to realise the significance of these strange markings.
This was the significance I wanted to define by asking you to imagine what it
would be like to be exposed to the written word for the first time. To undergo
nothing less than a revelation of understanding in one moment. Not to gradually
acquire an understanding over childhood, as we all did, but to witness the full
authority and dignity of our externalised memories in one short moment.
I’m reminded of the quote
“Memory is itself indefinable yet it defines us ”
This is why we collect books, they are that important.
At some point these early collections acquired an existence beyond their own walls
and began to draw in those seeking these preserved thoughts and memories.
The arrival of these seekers signalled a change in the library. They now, indeed we,
need to be able to retrieve as well as store. To allow anyone to find that which they
were seeking.
For me this was the first important change to the library and began to define them.
I see it as so important that comparable to that change nothing really happened to
us libraries for a long time. For a change as defining we need to fast forward
through to a time when nothing much really happened to us, libraries begat
universities, universities begat schools, schools blah, blah, blah education. Fast
forward until we reach roughly 1900 when we were required to provide access to
this collection, to those without the funds to access it any other way.
Here I pause, to stress the importance of the idea of providing access to those
without the funds. In particular the word funds. It is absolutely crucial to this
explanation of the history and evolution of libraries. It marks the beginning for my
understanding and I suspect for the general understanding of the library, that is the
public library.
I stressed the importance of finance here as I think it is an issue that hasn’t had
enough importance attached to it. I scanned through the Government’s first ever
national public library strategy; 2003s “Framework for the Future” document and
saw no mention of the declining cost of books. Yet to me this is the fundamental
problem the library is now struggling with.
Books are cheap.
Would any one like to guess as to the book/wage ratio in 1900?
That is; to compare the cost of an average book in 1900 to the average weekly
wage in 1900? I briefly searched for these details but could not find a conclusive
answer. We’d all agree that the farther back in time we go the greater the price of a
book relative to the average wage. Until we get to the time, pre printing press when
books were beyond the means of any working wage.
Compare that to today, when books are given away free with a box of cereal.
Where supermarkets offer 50% off the latest titles. Where the market for second
hand books has exploded, Oxfam alone sold 11 million books last year. On-line the
main cost in buying a second hand book is the P&P.
Project Gutenberg to date has a catalogue of some 30,000 of the world’s most
popular classic books digitized and available to download for free.
J.K.Rowling has sold 350 – 400 million books, Danielle Steel 560-570 million,
Harold Robbins 750 million, Barbara *@&%$£” Cartland between 500 – 1000
million books. Although considering that she has written over 100 000 books….
Dan Browns’ The Lost Symbol had an initial print run of 6.5 million, not including
Ebook versions.
There are literally thousands of web-sites that will allow you to upload, publish,
print and sell your own hard backed professionally designed book, with a print run
of 1.
And you know what, we did this. We the library. We the public library.
Is this nothing short of miraculous? Should we not celebrate?
The public libraries were charged with encouraging reading. And so we did, so
much so that now, not only can nearly everyone read, nearly everyone has their
own library.
I’m not going to debate standards, I’m saying more people now than ever before
Across all cultures the ability to read was once a jealously guarded secret. Those
with this knowledge would and did kill to safeguard their power. During the
middle ages across Europe only those privileged enough to be authorised to do so
by church or state would ever learn to read and write.
Allow me to extend the argument here to another thought experiment involving
someone from a time when Augustine of Hippo noted of Ambrose bishop of Milan
“When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning,
but his voice was silent and his tongue was still… for he never read aloud.” from
this commentary we can intuit that reading aloud, today indicative of poor literacy,
was then the norm. Our ability to read has evolved and improved.
Imagine trying to convince someone from this time that today we can send a man
to the moon. I’m sure at first they wouldn’t believe you. Using some basic
chemicals, some simple props and a naked flame. I think the basics of chemical
propulsion would be obvious enough to be explicable.
I doubt, as is my point here, that we could convince anyone from this time that
today not only is literacy so widespread, we have had incredible success with
childhood literacy. Again I’m not debating standards, I’m establishing an obvious
I think explaining childhood literacy would be much more difficult than persuading
someone of space travel. They would have no frame of reference against which to
compare a child not old enough to work, yet who could read. Surely a child who
could read would be considered miraculous or demonic.
Hmmmmm maybe things haven’t changed that much;)
As I proposed earlier, we did this.
Unfortunately in doing so, we did ourselves out of a job.
If politicians and leaders (and management) did their jobs as well as librarians, we
wouldn’t need them. The same could be said for the police, army, doctors and
OK, we did such a good job. We’ve done ourselves out of it.
Now what?
In December 1965 The Beatles released “Rubber Soul”.
In response Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys decided to create the greatest pop
album ever. In May 1966 The Beach Boys released “Pet Sounds” and many people
told him, including Paul McCartney, that he had indeed created the greatest album
of all time.
“Great” they said “Now what?”
How do you top that? How do you improve on greatest?
Regrettably Brian Wilson didn’t know how to top it either. It didn’t stop him trying.
It’s this trying that is credited with sending Brian Wilson into a decaying spiral of
As to Brians’ state of mind during this time many apocryphal tales have been told.
Because of his celebrity these tales became public knowledge and would pre-empt
any appearance by him, undoubtedly contributing to his condition. I recall the
urban myth that whilst recording the follow up to Pet Sounds, tentatively titled
“Smile”, he entered a busy L.A. Restaurant, sat at a table, ordered his meal and ate
it, behaving impeccably throughout. Apart from the time he tried to butter his own
In all seriousness, right now I’m worried that although we think our behaviour is
impeccable, the library is indeed, buttering it’s own head.
If we are, what are we to do?
My personal belief is that we are anthropomorphising books. As books in the past
were so precious, we’ve continued to attribute a value to them, beyond that which
is useful and which can become dangerous for our survival. I am not saying we
need to get rid of all our books, rather we need to re-assess our approach to them.
When public libraries first appeared we could afford to be exclusive. We had
books. The majority of the population desired books, but simply couldn’t afford
them. They had no choice, if they wanted to read they had to come to us. If I may
be allowed the indelicacy usually attributed to presidents, I’ll quote “If you have
them by their balls their hearts and minds will follow”. This may go some way to
explaining why we are haemorrhaging statistics. While I don’t want to spend too
long debating the uses and abuses of statistics. Even the most optimistic of
interpretations would view a 50% loss of book issues over the past 20 years and
regular usage down to 30% from 70% as illuminating an evident problem.
We have undergone a paradigm change. From being an exclusive organisation to
one needing to become inclusive. Putting it crudely, we need them more than they
need us.
For the past few thousand years libraries have had no need of creativity, in fact
there is a strong argument that they abhorred it. Creative filing systems tend not to
be useful other than to the person who created it. What was needed and found was
a dull as dishwater method that everyone and anyone could use.
Over the past 20 years this has come to haunt us. It feels like we are the artist who
is ordered to be spontaneous, NOW!
I have heard many incredibly creative ideas ranging from, less books more
computers and the opposite, to quiet areas. From LAN and WAN parties to every
library becoming a community hub for reprographics and printing. I’m told that
Accrington library, with a pay point installed and combining that with the sale of
bus passes, has been banking over £10 000 per month. Of which the library claims
a percentage. If you were going to pay your bills in cash where would you rather
pay, the town centre library or a corner shop?
So what can do we do?
What did Brian Wilson do?
After several decades of therapy so intense it has become legendary. Brian was
able to top the greatest album ever. In 2004 he released, nearly 40 years after he
began it, “Smile”. A damn fine album it was, released to excellent reviews. Not a
patch on “Pet Sounds” but that is irrelevant, he did it, he topped the greatest album
in the world . He faced his fears, gave it his all and successfully produced a record
that was an evolution of his creation.
I’ll leave you with a question I’ve been asking myself, and I’d like to think that
you’ll be asking yourself
“What’s our “Smile” going to look like?”
Thank you
If you are wondering about the subjects I mentioned at the beginning Chaos
Theory/ Fractal Geometry, the O.O.D.A. Loop of Consciousness. I did involve
them in this presentation and will happily give a series of lectures on not only the
subjects themselves, but also how we can use them to achieve our goals.


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