May. 5th, 2016

On Monday afternoon, as a Friend of the Library and Archives of Canada, I attended a lecture by Caroline Brazier, head of the British Library, speaking about the value of national libraries. She's an engaging speaker and made some excellent points. Her central thesis was that there have been changes over the years in HOW they do things, but not so much in WHAT they do. She also referred to some research done by John Holden on attributes of public value, which I may look up later.

She began her talk by outlining three major functions of a national library: custodianship, research and business. Of these, she considers custodianship (encompassing things like collection, preservation and ongoing care and maintenance) to be at the heart of everything else they do. Well, right there I was hooked! A lot of the problems of modern librarianship, in my opinion, stem from the wanton disregard of the physical form of the documentary entity. A recent Librarian and Archivist of Canada (who fortunately has now moved on) spoke blithely about freeing information from the constraints of its "containers" as if the physical format were but an accident of fate and an inconsequential vessel! Well, I guess if you're responsible for safeguarding 800-year-old original copies of the Magna Carta, maybe you view things a little differently?

In Canada over the past ten or fifteen years, we have seen the disbanding of the Canadian Book Exchange Centre, the closure of numerous federal government libraries, the gutting of the interlibrary loans network, and... well, I won't go on because it's just too depressing. Still, the (fairly) new Librarian & Archivist has shown more promise with, for example, the Sylvestre-Wallot lecture series (of which Brazier's lecture was one) and the offer of collaboration with Ottawa Public Libraries opening up the possibility of a "Grande Bibliotheque" for Ottawa akin to the one in Montreal.

But I digress. Getting back to Holden's research on the attributes of public value, Brazier said that national libraries have an intrinsic value, an instrumental value and an institutional value (the 3 i's?). She then mentioned more specific values, which I suspect could be grouped under the three general categories, maybe with a certain amount of overlap. Service value. Cultural value (she referred to some of their exhibitions, for example). Social value (for example, she said she was quite proud of the fact that a number of visitors said they offered the best cup of coffee in the area!)

Of course, libraries are constantly looking for stable sources of funding and that can involve quantifying the touchy-feely remarks about how and why people love their libraries in general, and the British Library in particular. In one study, visitors to the British Library were polled about the primary purpose of their visit. The results were interesting:

cultural: 32%
academic research: 30%
"personal escape": 21%
individual research: 10%
work: 7%

I don't know if visitors were presented with these categories at the time of their visit or if the responses were totally free-form and grouped into categories later. Still, I found it fascinating that one in five people apparently views the library first and foremost as a means of personal escape. I wonder what people would say about the Library and Archives of Canada. Has a similar study ever been done here?

One thing Caroline Brazier stressed very clearly was the danger of measuring the wrong things. As she felt is often done in, for example, the health care system. A case of lies, damned lies and statistics?

I'll have more to say on that one in a forthcoming blog entry about my frustrations with this year's Census.

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