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mark_camilleri
Mark Camilleri

Let’s not lose our public libraries

By Mark Camilleri, chairman of the National Book Council

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Mark Camilleri
7 July 2014, 9:53am
When a book lover visits your house, there is a great possibility that he or she will judge you on your personal library and on what books you read. And rightly so. For in a society which has instilled in us a competitive work ethic, we shouldn’t be judged solely on our achievements and successes, but also on our cultural attitudes.

In a similar way, a nation is often judged by its cultural development and the state of our libraries may be considered as one cultural indicator among many.

The National Book Council is taking a very pro-active approach to public libraries, in line with the strong belief that the council should work closely with Malta Libraries, the official State institution which is responsible for public libraries, including the local branches and the National Library.

Cooperation along these lines is indeed bearing its fruits, one example among which is the Public Lending Rights scheme which will be set in motion following Malta Libraries’ installation of new software in its digital system to allow the National Book Council to distribute payments to local authors whose books have been borrowed by library clients. 

But let’s get one thing straight from the outset, public libraries in Malta are in a crisis and this has been illustrated clearly in the latest NSO figures, citing a 9.5% drop in library loans in 2013, compared to the previous year.

However, really and truly, this was not news. We were already aware that public libraries in Malta are losing clients, but the reasons given by the NSO report for their decline aren’t factual, let alone accurate.

Public libraries are not facing a crisis because library clients are opting to read ebooks, as the report implied. If this was the case, the only issue with public libraries would be their lack of an ebook infrastructure. The situation is more complicated than that.

First of all, readers who download ebooks from the Internet are not necessarily the same type of readers who make use of public libraries. Many library clients confess that they enjoy that magical experience of browsing through an array of book shelves, and picking out something which draws their attention.

Library clients are not necessarily readers who tend to purchase books, printed or digital, on a regular basis. Bearing this in mind, we have to consider that libraries have a very important social role to play in society since they act as centres of free information which can be accessed equally by all citizens, irrespective of social and economic background.

And, indeed, libraries can be strong emancipatory tools for those who are not in a position to experience the full learning trajectory made available thanks to our education system, such as early school-leavers and immigrants, to name but two examples.

The current main issue with public libraries is that they are not being regularly stocked with new books since the cataloging process is taking ages. Large numbers of books bought by local councils, the National Book Council and Malta Libraries itself are lying idle, closed up in boxes instead of going onto the shelves where they belong.

When considering that the vast majority of books in our libraries are years old and worn out, it is no wonder that library clients are being discouraged from making use of them.

In a society where life is getting faster-paced by the minute, decidedly more competitive and difficult to live in, reading books as an activity is falling behind in the working individual’s priority list.

So, it is true that libraries today face great challenges in order to attract clients, but if we don’t get our basics right, we can’t start dreaming of bigger projects; neither can we start discussing the offsetting of ebook readership among library users since the conditions for such branching-out to occur are far from materialised.

We have to start being more critical and analytical of the problem at hand, rather than rushing to quick conclusions. One such quick conclusion, which was recently mentioned in the press, is the relocation of the Central Public Library.

Currently, Malta Libraries along with the cultural advisors of the Finance Ministry are discussing a project to relocate the Central Public Library of Floriana to a building in Valletta at 8, Old Mint Street.

In theory, such a proposal is all well and good, but currently, such a move is so inconsistent with the current state of affairs that it reeks of strange implications. I sincerely hope that the building which currently houses the Central Public Library, will remain a library.

The road leading to the Central Public Library might not be ideal for families with children who have to walk to their destination, but such a problem can be solved with changes and adjustments to the road itself. Surely, such an investment would be by far cheaper than the refurbishment and relocation costs which are currently being discussed. The same money can be easily used to address more immediate problems.

The biggest problem with the relocation scenario is that in a small building in Valletta, the library would have great limits imposed on it, since the building proposed is even smaller than the existing Central Public Library.

Currently, the Central Public Library enjoys an area of less than 800 metres squared which is available to shelving and books, an area which, admittedly, is insignificant compared to what you would find in other European libraries.

According to a report by Malta Libraries, if the library is to be relocated to the envisioned space, the area available for shelving will be of around 500 metres squared – less than the actual area covered by exhibitors at the National Book Festival, which generally takes up around 600 metres squared.

One of the main concepts behind the management of a healthy library, is that it should be continuous and regular in its expansion, with shelving and books being added gradually, but such a scenario will be made impossible with the relocation to a place in Valletta which cannot be developed further due to strict MEPA regulations with regulate development in the capital city.

Our public libraries are in crisis, and no relocation project will effectively solve the current crisis, especially if the new location is to put further constraints and limits on the library itself. We need a holistic vision for our public libraries, but this vision will not be implemented unless the library gets its basics right from the outset.

mark_camilleri
Mark Camilleri is a historian and chairman of the National Book Council.
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