a building. Sure, there are some lovely wonderful buildings which house libraries, and we don't have to go back too far to see when the building that housed a library was essentially a temple of worship to the book. However, while a library needs a building (although I'm not going too far down that route any longer, since a case can easily made that it's no longer true), it can't define the library. Sure, it can help with the concept of a library, and it can assist in the role of the library - they used to be quiet buildings with loud rooms, but now they're more often than not a loud building with quiet rooms, but a building full of books, neatly arranged with helpful people doing things for the members/clients/etc could quite easily be a bookshop.
A library is not a collection of books. It's also not a collection of resources either. We cannot define ourselves by the artifacts that we use. We should - hopefully - have long gone beyond that - into other media to begin with, but then, as society has started to leave physical objects behind with the increased use of music files instead of CDs and films on demand instead of DVDs and knowledge 'in the cloud' instead of on CD-ROM, so has the the library and the librarians. We're not in the book business - we have *never* been in the book business. We're in the knowledge business, helping, assisting and facilitating what our members and our communities want. However, and this will raise a few hackles I'm sure - perhaps we've not done it as loudly or as obviously as we should. For many reasons - librarians are not well known for being self publicists and for shouting what they do from the rooftops, and perhaps because in our job we seek consensus and agreement rather than discord and disagreement. If it is seen that the principle role of the library/librarian is to maintain a collection, then we become defined BY that collection. The argument then turns into one of 'what will happen if we get rid of the collection?', rather than 'can our community manage without the input of a librarian?' At that point, people will say that they can manage without, because there are bookshops (although in decreasing numbers), charity shops (God help us) or Amazon or Google, for those lucky enough to have access to the net.
Problems arise when the library/librarians are not seen as part of the backbone of a community. Once this happens, it becomes logical to think of cutting it. The decisions of councils and mayors with little brain are a total puzzlement, when viewed in the light of how we see libraries. They see them as a resource which isn't part of a community. We have an insane situation where a community is apparently forced to choose between having a library and caring for its elderly and deprived. There are a few points worth making here - firstly, it's the role and responsibility of an elected body to run services on behalf of the community that elected them, and it's not for them to try to abrogate responsibility back to the community, either in terms of 'you want it you run it' or in terms of 'if you don't let us do x, y will happen'. The very idea that if we don't close libraries we have to cut social care is patently ridiculous. I would be the first to agree that a council has to prioritise, and things like hospitals, firestations, police are towards the top of the list. However, we don't have hospitals, firestations and police stations on every corner, because at some point other things come into play. In order to have a healthy community we have to have a varied community and that includes a variety of social amenities. A better, more logical discussion might be 'do we want a library space, or do we want a swimming pool', although obviously a better discussion would be along the lines of a rather grander economic discourse on what the Government is or is not doing to the country as a whole.
A second point is that a library service, which is able to provide resources, artifacts and knowledge to a community does fulfill a social need and requirement. Without getting too hysterical about it, while a hospital or a day centre can be used to keep a body going, a library service keeps a mind going. In that respect, a library service is just as important as a health service - because both services are aimed at doing the same thing - keeping a society or a community safe and healthy - they're just dealing with different elements.
So, if a library is not a building, and it's not books or other artifacts, what is it? I've already said that librarians cannot and shouldn't be defined by what we work with (if that was the case we'd all have very dim views of greengrocers who sell vegetables!), but rather by what it is that we achieve. We should be defined by the effect that we have on our society and our communities. Because really, what we do, what we're involved with, is the knowledge business as I've said, and that actually equates to the power business. I often say that I wanted to be a librarian because I wanted the power, and while it's fun to hear an audience laugh, it's also quite sad, because clearly they often don't see it the way that I do. Our role is not found on our shelves, in our computers, in our buildings or even in our history, but in what we DO. And that isn't 'stamp out books'. That's defining us, once again, in terms of the artifacts that we may (or increasing may not) use.
Every single librarian does something special, and it doesn't matter if they're in a school, public library, academic, prison, commercial - any. We help to or perhaps even inspire people to read, we help people get jobs, we change lives. We make a community better. We make a community better, and yes I did repeat that, because it's important. We help protect free speech, we help provide people with hope, and I don't make any excuse for using such hyperbole, because it needs to be heard. It needs to be shouted. A while ago I wrote a piece on 'What Librarians Do and what Google does'. Someone suggested that Google did good things as well, and librarians were also on the lookout for money. That's completely missing the point, because the whole reason for librarians is to work for their members and their communities by facilitation, and by providing good, valuable credible information to better and improve what people do. If Google does this, it's a nice sideline from their goal of making money.
Librarians are here to help their communities, and an attack on a library is an attack on a community. It may not seem like it, and clearly to a lot of councillors it doesn't, but that's exactly what it is. Because it's saying that the benefit that people get from their libraries/librarians in terms of learning to read, in getting a job, in finding social services to protect them in some way, in giving people the opportunity to learn or indeed just enjoying a good book - none of that matters. And when they say that none of that matters what they're actually saying is 'that community doesn't matter' and 'that person isn't important'.
Libraries and librarians are not a community 'bolt on' service. They are an integral part of a community, they help represent a community and they contribute to the health of a community. That's why cuts to libraries are so dangerous - not just because they deprive people of access to resources, or jobs, or information or pleasure, but because they say 'You don't matter. You are not important.' That's not a good thing.