Bill Hulet Editor

Here's the thing. A lot of important local issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Are Public Libraries Still Important?


Libraries have a long history, but public libraries only stretch back to the late 19th century. They came about because the industrial revolution created a need for a new class of scientifically-trained workers. This new class of skilled employees were trained at charitably-funded "Mechanics Institutes", which also tended to include lending libraries. Eventually, these private institutions were taken over by municipal government and run like a public utility. This article argues that a similar demand currently exists to train people in "hands on" skills needed in the emerging "post-industrial" or "information" economy. Moreover, public libraries also serve the added purpose of saving local history. They also help lower income people look for employment and navigate government bureaucracy---both of which are primarily web-based. Finally, libraries serve as a publicly-accessible "third place" which fosters a sense of community.


It's been about a year since the latest conversation at City Hall about putting a new public library in what is now the downtown Baker Street parking lot. That scheme was stopped cold by the decision of the provincial government to not fund a downtown campus of Conestoga College, which would have anchored the proposed Library/YMCA/College/University proposal. Since people have been arguing the need for a new downtown library for a very long time, I think that readers might be interested in a real investigation of why we have public libraries, whether we still need them, and, if we do, whether or not we need a new one in downtown Guelph.


Why Do We Have Public Libraries? 

Libraries have existed almost as long as the written word. They existed in the ancient world, probably the most famous of which was the Library of Alexandria. This was an adjunct to the Musaeum of Alexandria which was a royally-sponsored institute of learning---similar to a university---which existed in the Ptolemaic Egypt. (This was the dynasty of Greek rulers who inherited that particular part of the empire established by Alexander the Great.)

Speculative Drawing of Alexandrian Library by O. Von Corven
Public Domain, Wiki-Commons 
Primarily, the Alexandrian Library existed as a "prestige" enterprise that helped advertise the power and glory of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Other libraries existed between the time of the Ptolemies and the modern era, but because books were so expensive, they tended to be rare and restricted to religious institutions like monasteries. With the rise of modern printing technology, modern "lending libraries" were created as something that the merely wealthy could access through subscription. Eventually literacy became more common and printing cheaper yet, and industrialists started supporting something called "Mechanics Institutes" for literate working class people. 

Mechanics Institutes came about through the Industrial Revolution when new technology created a need for an entirely new class of skilled trades people that could not be created through the traditional apprenticeship system. Primarily, these people were what we would call "engineers" who needed to have an education in mathematical analysis and the theoretical properties of materials that couldn't be learned from "hands on" training. Wealthy industrialists saw the need for these new "scientifically-skilled" workers, so they set up informal institutions where intelligent people could be taught these new methods. In addition, these organizations also had lending libraries so people could hone their language skills as well as learn calculus, chemistry, and, other important, practical skills.
Manchester Mechanics Institute Building, 1825
Public Domain Image, Wiki-Commons

Guelph's first lending library was located in a back room behind a store in 1832, and a formal "Farmer's and Mechanic's Institute"---with a lending library---was created in 1850.  Public lending libraries came about because of the need to raise the education level of the general public to be able to adapt to a changing workplace. 

Eventually, the Mechanic's Institutes lending libraries became seen as such an important public good that there was pressure to support them as part of the community infrastructure---just like roads, water mains, sewers, police and fire departments, schools, and so on. To that end, Great Britain passed a "Public Libraries Act" in 1850 that allowed local governments to create and fund lending libraries as a public "utility".  Ontario followed suit in 1882. Guelph Council immediately took advantage of its new powers, and established the Guelph Free Public Library in 1883 by taking over the Farmer's and Mechanic's Institute library and running it for them. In fact, Guelph created a public library in the same year as the much-larger Toronto. In effect, Guelph has been on the fore-front of public libraries from the very beginning of such things.  

Guelph administered this old Mechanic's Institute library for 20 years, but in 1901 the Chairman of the Guelph Library Board wrote to the Carnegie Foundation asking for a grant to build a Carnegie library in the town. This was formally approved in 1902, but due to various local delays, it was not open until 1905, in total the new building cost $24,000. ($4,000 was due to local delays---is this the earliest example of "the Guelph Factor"?)  In today's dollars, this is the equivalent of $640,000, which would have been---and was seen as---an astronomical amount of money for Guelph.

Photo by Charles L. Nelles -  Library and Archives Canada 
The Carnegie library lasted until 1964, when it was demolished to make room for the more modern building that we have today. (I will discuss this more in a future post.)


What Are the Modern Equivalent of Mechanic's Institutes?

If public libraries first came about because emerging industries needed a new class of educated workers, the question should be raised "Do we still need them?" After all, we now have Universities and Colleges to teach technical subjects. And doesn't the Internet allow people to access technical information that people used to get out of books and magazines? Isn't the Back-Grounder itself an example of why libraries are obsolete?

To answer this question, I think that we need to be very careful framing the question. If we ask "Do we need public repositories of paper books and magazines?", we might be able to answer "Yes, we do. But the demand is decreasing very slightly." But if we ask "Do we need a public space where people can do self-directed learning in order to adapt to a changing world?", I think the answer would be "Yes, we desperately need it." Here are links to three different articles that talk about this point in some depth using research from Britain, the USA, and, Australia.


Consider the following photo:

The Guelph Public Library 3-D printer---note the little objects
between the keyboard and screen.
Photo by Bill Hulet

That is a three-dimensional (3-D) printer. This technology allows people design an object using Computer Assisted Design (CAD) software, which then can be "printed" into an actual object using the machine on the left. The particular one that the Library has for public use can only print the sort of little toys that are on display with it. (Even this machine can be useful---a friend of mine used it to create a part for a vintage motorcycle he is restoring.) But learning how to use it will help people gain the basic knowledge and skills necessary to move onto larger, more practical types of machines.

To give readers an idea of how useful a 3-D printer can be, consider the following applications.  I have deformed feet and have to wear special orthopedic devices to be able to walk. Right now, this involves having my feet cast in plaster, then molds of my feet are made, which are then sent off to a fabrication lab, where an individual creates the devices by hand---a process that takes weeks to do. With a 3-D printer, my feet could be scanned, the orthodics designed with a CAD program, the software downloaded on a thumb drive, and, I could take it to a local "print shop" to be printed off the same day. Dentures, artificial limbs, and, many other devices can also be made this way. Parts for appliances can also be created this way---instead of sending off to China and waiting months for something to arrive. And, of course, since there is almost no real cost to machine set-up or part storage, with widespread 3-D printing no expensive, complicated machine will need be scrapped because one part broke and there is no longer any way to get a new one. All you would have to do is download the software onto a thumb drive from website, take it to a print shop, and, get it printed.

This technology is not limited to the use of plastics. Through the use of laser sintering technology, metal items can also be printed using 3-D methods.

There are also machines that will print ceramics---and much more exotic materials such as living human tissues! Think a little about 3-D printing and you will realize that this new technology will create as big a revolution in the economy as the steam engine did in the 19th century. And, I would argue, when that revolution comes it will require hordes of people with a wide variety of skill levels---from inventors, through entrepreneurs and machine operators, to people with enough basic knowledge to do customer service---to integrate the new technology into the economy. 


I've focused on 3-D Printing so I could go into some detail to make my point---and because the Guelph Public Library actually has a printer for public use. What I wanted to emphasize is the continuity of purpose between the original "Guelph Farmer's and Mechanic's Institute" and the current Public Library.  Public libraries still serve that useful purpose of offering a venue where an engaged member of the public can self-educate herself in emerging new technologies. 

Truth be told, there are other things that people use the library for that are so common that people forget how useful that they can be. One example is wifi and a computer pool. The last time I had a problem with my home Internet connection I took my laptop computer into the public library and used the wifi connection to search for information about how to trouble-shoot the problem and come up with a solution. I would have been in a significant "pickle" if I hadn't been able to do that. 

I also remember waiting in line and hearing a woman getting reader service for borrowing CDs on how to learn Spanish. She mentioned that she and her husband are long-haul truck drivers and they were teaching themselves this language while on the road. I have since learned that Spanish is increasingly becoming an informal second official language in the USA, and it is especially useful for truck drivers to learn a working knowledge of this language. French is similarly useful, for obvious reasons. A sustained investigation would no doubt find many, many more examples of how people use the public library for their lively hood. In an information economy the public library is an essential resource for many small businesses.

It is also important to realize that when people say that new technologies are "revolutionary" in the same sense as the steam engine was to the industrial revolution, it is not simply meant that they will change some aspects of the current economic system, but rather that they will turn the current economic system totally upside down and this includes how we use already existing technology too.  3-D printing holds the potential to make centralized, giant factories a thing of the past, as we could see the eventual creation of local "general factories" that have industrial scale printers that can be used to print off individual objects as needed. What does it do to the idea of a national "brand" of something if it is produced at the local 3-D printer instead of a central factory in another city, province, or, country? Of course, we could have large corporations who's job it is to design the items which are then printed off locally. But I suspect that a more likely scenario would involve people using open source alternatives that will be available for free download. Anyone care for a Linux or FreeBSD set of eye-glasses, dishes, or, dustpan? 

This is an important issue to consider. When the Mechanic's Institutes were being created, the new economy of that day wanted people that could be hired by large companies to work at permanent, well-defined jobs. What today's economy wants instead, are independent contractors, consultants, and, entrepeneurs who can learn specific skills necessary for a specific job at a specific time. This is a very different environment---one that is even more dependent on self-learning than the old Industrial Revolution was.

If this seems hard to understand, consider the following project, which is being done using all present-day technology---no 3-D printers or other gee-whiz tech in sight. The key point is that they are all using open-source designs that have been registered with a "Copyleft" agreement and gleaned from best practice all over the world.  


At this point some readers may be thinking "this is all very well, but I am never, ever going to be using any of this stuff.  Moreover, I suspect that the majority of people in the community will never use it either. So why should my tax dollars be used to pay for it?"

The important point to remember is that while you personally may not ever use the public library to learn this sort of thing, this doesn't mean that you will never gain from the work of the people who do use these resources. You may, for example, hire someone to fix your vacuum cleaner who will be able to print off a new part instead of telling you that you need to buy a whole new machine. Or, you may sell something to the fellow who fixes the vacuum cleaner. Economists often inflate the "spin off" benefits that accrue to a community to an absurd level, but the fact of the matter is that no man is an island, and when one person becomes more prosperous this often has "trickle down" benefits for others. And one thing that is for certain, communities that don't adopt new technologies run a huge risk of being "left behind".  Ever heard of something called "the rust belt"?


The next question is "OK. I see the value of all of this, but this information is available on the Internet. What has it got to do with a library?" Please note that that the key elements here are "self-directed learning" and "collaborative learning". That is to say that people want to learn specific types of skills---like how to run a 3-D printer. This isn't the same sort of book learning one gets in a college course, because the skill set isn't a formal trade. Instead, it is much like picking up a wrench from a tool box. The skill is a specific response to an individual problem. It might be used over and over again. It might grow into a career path. But it might be used just once for a particular job and never used again. If you looked at the above video (and I recommend you do) you will see an information system that show how to build your own home. If you want to do this, you don't need to get a carpenter's papers---but if you don't even know how to hammer a nail, it can still be pretty intimidating. More to the point, if you want to build it quick, you are going to have to hire and co-ordinate help from the community. That requires groups of people learning how to work together without descending into anarchy---and that too is a specific skill set that needs to be learned.

Both of these are "hands on" skills that can't be learned over the Internet. Oddly enough, we've come full circle as a civilization. The old Mechanic's Institutes existed to teach people the theoretical skills that they couldn't learn from the apprentice system. The new ones that we need today will teach us the tactile learning that many people never get a chance to experience in formal education. If people doubt the value of this, I would suggest that they go to the Library at the University of Guelph where huge areas of the building have been set aside to allow students to learn two different skill sets that can only be learned by doing:  working together in a small group, and, peer-to-peer tutoring.

Libraries around the world are working to fill these emerging needs. For example, here's an academic library that connects students with other students that have specific skills that they want to learn, through what they call a "Knowledge Market". And here's another one that has created what they call a "Maker Space" where students can learn "hands-on skills" building things.

Guelph's New "Mechanic's Institutes"

Like other communities, Guelph has a lot of pent up demand for this sort of learning. As a result, it has followed the same path of the old Guelph Farmer's and Mechanic's Institute. That is volunteer-based non-profit groups and funded by subscription and donation have been formed to help people learn new skillls. These include:

The Diyode community workshop is a place for making, 2500 square feet of tools and supplies for wood working, metal working, electronics, prototyping and crafting. Holding it all together is a community of people who like to get their hands dirty, and are always willing to lend a hand to anyone that wants learn something new. 
Diyode is a non-profit organization with a mandate to foster an enthusiasm for DIY, to spread the idea that it’s better to build something than to buy it, and that it is better to fix something than throw it away. (From the Diode website.)
Tool libraries loan specialized tools for both experienced and inexperienced community members who are interested in repair, maintenance and building projects. Local tool libraries reduce the costs of improving and greening neighbourhoods, thereby transforming homes and community spaces into vibrant places that reflect a commitment to sustainability and environmental concern.
Over 100 tool libraries have been established in North America since 1979. As a member of the Guelph Tool Library, members sign-out tools for both their home and community initiatives. Whether you are hanging a picture or renovating a community park, the Tool Library offers a range of equipment for your project as a low-cost, resource sharing and space-saving alternative to purchasing and owning tools. (From the Guelph Tool Library website.)
A Repair Café is an event where people volunteer to try and fix broken items. Stations will be set up in the hall and outside with volunteers offering to fix damaged items or provide advice about next steps. Tables will be set up for repairing jewellery, simple sewing fixes, small appliance repair, and bike repairs. Volunteers from the University of Guelph Bike Club and Transition Guelph will be among the people helping out. (From the Transition Guelph website.)
While it is great that the community has spontaneously created these new institutions from general interest, I think that a case could be made that they serve such an important public good that they should be funded through the commonweal instead of private charity. Just like the Mechanic's Institute libraries were replaced by municipally-funded public libraries, just so these new social institutions probably will only continue and manifest their full potential if we also make them into a public utility. I would suggest that it makes perfect sense for the Public Library to expand it's core purpose to encompass these functions, as it already has an institutional culture that can easily accommodate them.


Archival Collections

When the Guelph Mercury closed it's doors last year there was a bit of a fuss about where the collection of old issues and photos was going to go. The civic museum stepped-in temporarily but eventually the Library took them over. If they hadn't, it is conceivable that the entire collection could have been destroyed. And with it, a huge part of Guelph history would have disappeared with it. Local library archives are the only real institutional repository that most communities have for retaining their history.

The Internet certainly doesn't save local history. That's because web-based resources are primarily aimed at the wider world rather than local areas. Moreover, the vast majority of information that is more that twenty years old simply has yet to be digitized and saved onto server farms. Somebody has to save the old documents, microfilms, photos, etc, go through them manually, label and organize, select out the most useful and important, create catalogues, etc---and then post it on the web. Moreover, this has to be done according to fixed conventions to ensure that anyone who wants to seek out a specific piece of information will have a hope of actually finding the important piece of information that they are seeking.

The Guelph Public Library Archivist Darcy Hiltz,
photo by Bill Hulet
This is a task that is only really properly done by a skilled professional. In Guelph's case, we have Darcy Hiltz. He is the guy that makes sure that the people of Guelph don't lose the photos and records that allow us to have some feel for the history of the place where we live.

There is a fair amount of stuff already digitized and available on the web through a province-wide system that allows local libraries to upload their information into centralized servers. For example, if you look go to the Guelph Public Library (GPL) website and hover over the "local history" button, a menu drops down that includes a variety of items. Just on a whim, I clicked on "Research Your Home", which took me to "Couling Inventory", which eventually brought me to a PDF that showed me an old photo of my house plus a few pieces of information, including when it was built.

Most people can see the value of saving old historical records in and of itself. But these records can also have a practical value. I can remember, for example, a neighbour who was having problems with the city over parking regulations. In effect, the city was telling him that his gravel parking spot was a new addition and they wanted him to rip out a patio and park there instead. Through research in the library archives, he was able to find old photos that showed a Model "T" Ford parked in the gravel spot and a woman in 1950's clothing hanging laundry where the patio was installed. This showed that the existing state of affairs was not something new, but rather an arrangement that was as old as the house---which made it "legal, non-conforming" in the eyes of the Ontario Municipal Board.


Library as Community Access Hub

Recently I was at a social event and met a woman who was just recovering from a bad fall where she fractured a couple vertebrates and broke a couple ribs. She had been working for a pizza store but lost the job because of the interruption in work. She was getting to the point where she was contemplating getting a new job, so she was looking. Unfortunately, at that point her laptop gave up the ghost and she said that she was reduced to applying on her cell phone, which was a pain.

This raises an important issue. Access to the Internet is increasingly a necessity for people to look for work, apply for government services, shop, and so on. If you don't have a computer or access to the Web, you really can be a "second class citizen". Libraries are increasingly the entry point for essential services that many people cannot access anywhere else.  One interesting idea that I found while researching this article was a Library in Denmark that understands how important this Internet access feature can be and expanded the concept by bringing together a variety of government services to create a "one stop shopping experience".
The spaceship-like structure houses...  ...a municipal service center for residents and newcomers where citizens can pick up their identification card, renew their passports, and register with the municipality...
Right now the federal, provincial, and, municipal governments all offer services through the post-office, city hall, and, machines in shopping malls. Why not consolidate some of these services and put in a "public service" portal in the Guelph Public Library where people could buy bus tickets, renew their passport, etc?  If the library had the space it could sub-contract with various government agencies to rent them the space for these various service---many of which the Library is already subsidizing by being the only entry point for their web-based services for many low-income people. Indeed, if you think about it, this has always been an important service of public libraries because job ads, public service announcements, etc, used to be an important feature in the news papers that libraries used to provide.


Library as "Third Place"

Theorists of community sometimes talk about the need for a "Third Place". This is a place besides home and work where people can meet formally or informally to interact with friends, neighbours, and, strangers in a way that builds community. These sorts of places can include barber shops, pool halls, bowling alleys, coffee shops, pubs, etc, but those institutions have their own agendas, which can mitigate against this function. For example, most bars play loud music to discourage conversation---which can slow the rate of alcohol consumption and cut into profits.

The great guru of third place is a sociologist by the name of Ray Oldenburg, who has written two books on the subject:  Celebrating the Third Space, and, The Great Good Place. He defines a third place as having the following characteristics:

  • Free or inexpensive
  • Food and drink, while not essential, are important
  • Highly accessible: proximate for many (walking distance)
  • Involve regulars – those who habitually congregate there
  • Welcoming and comfortable
  • Both new friends and old should be found there.

In a world where people are increasingly isolated into their own little cyber-world, it is tremendously important that our society creates spaces where people can meet face-to-face in an informal, public setting.

Libraries increasingly accept this emerging role and have configured their buildings to meet this challenge. The U of Guelph Library, for example, has a large area on the first floor which is designated as the "Academic Town Square" for informal connections between members of the university community and it has also brought in a Starbucks franchise to also allow people to buy coffee and light meals.

Have a cup of J.O.E. at the GPL!
The Guelph Public Library has also attempted to pursue this mandate through a partnership with J.O.E., a community group that helps developmentally disabled individuals by giving them work experience selling coffee to library patrons. Originally, this was to be a pilot project until the GPL moved to the bigger space on Baker Street, where J.O.E. would have had its own cafe from which they would give a percentage of revenue to the library. That, of course, is now on hold. Hopefully, when the GPL moves to a larger space, it will be able to honour this original commitment.


Future Stories

As I hope is obvious from the above, I think it is clear that there is still a role for a public library in Guelph. In future articles I hope to discuss some related issues, such as the past controversy surrounding the demolition of the Carnegie library building, the state of the existing building, funding models, the role of the main library versus branches, and so on. Sign up for the RSS feed, twitter, or, FaceBook to keep informed! And if you can afford it, please consider making a donation---either one time through the "donate" button on the upper right hand of the page, or, a monthly micro-payment through the "Patreon" button.