Keeping it Real
Have you noticed that almost everything we now refer to as ‘3D’ actually… isn’t? Clever phone screens, high-tech films and silly glasses, the latest computer games where you fling yourself around your living room to be projected into the action – they’re all terribly clever of course, but they’re not actually in three dimensions. People, theatre productions, a nice cup of tea – now they’re in 3D. But we know that, of course. Which is why we don’t make anything of it.
Something else that exists here in three dimensions, and of which I am extremely fond, is the library. As a concept, the library is both an extremely simple and bafflingly complex thing. It is there to provide a repository for knowledge, learning, entertainment – a place that gathers, preserves, and endeavours to make accessible. It can accommodate an infinite amount of objects depending upon the breadth of its chosen remit. And there is magic in walking around a library, just browsing, spying books or CDs you never knew even existed, musical scores that you’ve only ever heard of but never seen in the flesh.
But you might have noticed that in my little list of things that libraries do, accessibility is the third and final stage. First you have to find the things, then you have to catalogue, look after (or mend) the things – and then you can make the things available to others.
We live in an age where access, and accessibility, are considered paramount. For science, this means enhancing public understanding and devising new technologies to make the world a more comprehensible, more deeply understood, and less terrifying place. For the arts, it means countering the notion of elitism, organising education projects, bringing cultural events to deprived areas. Education must be for all, and we must endeavour to provide complete equality of opportunity.
This is laudable, and something in which I strongly believe. But there is a problem here, and it has to do with shifting notions of ‘accessibility’. And the three dimensions – the real ones – are losing out because of it.
The fastest way to make library materials accessible to all is to provide them in digital format. This has led to an unprecedented level of resource for researchers, lecturers, teachers, students, and anyone who is interested in finding out more. That’s wonderful, and has led to all kinds of opportunities for new projects and viewing information in a completely different way, because of the sheer scale of material that we can consult. For the lone researcher and their laptop, or the Dropbox-synced student group, there’s much to be gained.
Thanks to all this online, virtual (no doubt soon to be ‘3D’ with the right specs) research material, the building at the end of your street that houses the books, and issued you those little tickets, and stamped the front pages with the big push-down stamp that you desperately wanted to play with when you were six, is struggling. People aren’t stopping by so often, and modern life is a numbers game. If there aren’t enough users – real or online – there must be cuts. The latest potential casualty, in the news this week, is a group of up to 20 libraries in North Yorkshire, which will only continue to run if manned by volunteers and community groups.
Let me just take a moment to remind those of you shrugging and thinking of the ludicrously cheap rates of e-books. You still have to buy the Kindle, and you still have to pay for the book, even if it’s only 99p. And library books are – how much? All together now: nothing. Free. Gratis. We don’t all have £100 to shell out on an e-reader, and even if we do, some of us don’t want to, however super-cheap and handbag-light that makes our reading lives. Some of us like books, not to own forever (we’re all desperate to possess everything, have you noticed?) but to try and explore, to feel the weight of them in our hands, and pass them to another curious soul when we’re done. The marvel of technological innovation should not automatically exclude those not at the front of the queue for the latest life-changing device.
In music, where specialist librarians are both desperately necessary and an endangered species, there are several more worrying library-versus-online scenarios. For example:
You are running an amateur choir. You decide to perform Vivaldi’s Gloria and find a willing church to host, organist to play, and friends to man the doors, serve the wine and rattle the collection tin. That means you need scores. Where are you going to get them? Some libraries are no longer able to lend scores because of local authority cuts. Do you want to be the person informing each member of your choir that they are going to have to log onto IMSLP, download the score (you probably won’t have any choice regarding edition or legibility, it’ll just be whatever someone has helpfully uploaded), and then each print out a copy to work from? And when you team up with the other local choirs in the area to sing The Messiah (all 200-odd pages of it in vocal score) – how about then?
You are a university lecturer, poised to present a new course and keen to include a host of new, lesser-known musical extracts in your sessions. Your library has subscribed to Naxos Music Online, a phenomenally powerful resource putting over 1.5 million tracks at your disposal. Because of this subscription, and budget constraints, they can’t justify buying CDs of this unusual repertoire, because it won’t get used enough. Unfortunately, amazing as Naxos is, the service does not download the tracks – it simply streams your selections. And for security reasons, it logs you out after a period of inactivity. So if you’re teaching a two-hour lecture and want to play your first clip after 45 minutes, you can cue it as carefully as you like… it will still have logged you off before you get there. Of course there’s always Spotify (and unpredictable adverts) or YouTube (also with unpredictable adverts). Or illegal downloads. Or paying to buy the tracks/CDs yourself for every lecture… And if the library doesn’t have the score, you too might be up half the night printing examples from IMSLP. Or you could just do the same repertoire as last year, I guess.
A download may be less than a pound, but every track adds up. A score might be anywhere from £12 to £50, and for a single performance with friends in a culture that is supposed to be supporting amateur and educational music-making, that’s not acceptable. Online cultural resources, databases and services are extremely powerful and very necessary. But that doesn’t make real resources, the ones you can hold in your hand, obsolete as a result. There is a reason that we make things in three dimensions. And there is also a reason we have libraries. And as lovely as all the additional benefits are – the computer terminals, the social spaces and cafes, the education rooms and so on – the primary function remains as important as ever. It is to have books, scores, CDs, DVDs, and other genuinely 3D resources there for everybody, all the time.
Now: stop staring at your computer screen, and go and find your library card. And if you ask the staff nicely, they might even let you stamp the due date page all by yourself.
Visit the BBC website to find out about BBC 6’s current celebration of libraries.