At points ideas, opportunity and thinking seem to coalesce as if towards an overall purpose. When writing a chapter ‘Adventures in the Book Trade’ for the Facet publication, ‘Read to Succeed’, little did I imagine this would, via circuitous route, lead to the chance to speak in Seoul, South Korea at their National Library for Children and Young Adults 10th Symposium. The experience was enlivening, invigorating and quite unlike any other I’ve known.
The subject for the talk was to be ‘the flow, major issues and future strategies of library services for children in the United Kingdom with information around successful cases in the reading promotion field resulting from cooperation between the publishing and library sectors.
The paper for this was written well in advance of the symposium itself, in order to allow sufficient time for its contents to be translated into South Korean. It was hard not to be reminded and chastened by just how bleak the overall picture is for public libraries in the United Kingdom when writing the paper.
It felt important to endeavour to elevate the paper above being simply a list of woes arising from the cuts and closures the field has experienced in recent years. Taking a lead from Charles Dickens, the paper was written to give an account of the past and the way the network of public libraries was developed in the UK and the purposes and rationale behind this. The paper would then focus around some of the challenge and change of the present day and would close by looking towards the future identifying present efforts to provide vision and strategic direction.
Questions raised through the paper were informed by media coverage and public debate around libraries and included:
(i) What is the role of the library in modern British society
(ii) What cultural and educational value do they offer and are they the best delivery mechanisms for that?
(iii) Does the service constitute value for money?
What made a particular impact when writing this is the sheer force of forward thinking… the ennobling vision around human thought, imagination and learning in forging a remarkable network around human experience and knowledge. Perhaps a society’s vision and value can best be measured via the investment it returns to its populace? Libraries give immense and immeasurable return and it is hard not to feel saddened and demoralised that the barbaric cuts have eaten away at these in a way that has continually eroded at space, at staffing, at stock and at the services these institutes provide.
These ruminations were in stark contrast to the vibrancy and dedication experienced in South Korea, where around 300 librarians attended the symposium, listened and actively participated in discussions throughout the day. Their commitment and work made a deep and lasting impression through as to did that of the other speakers, Ingrid Bon, Chair of Libraries for Children and Young Adults Section, IFLA; Fredrik Ernerot, Chairman, School Library West, Sweden; Denise Agosto, Professor of the Collegoe of Computing and Informatics, Drexel University, USA; Linnet Ng, National Library Board, Singapore; Su-Jung KIM, President Korean Board on Books for Young People; Mikyeong CHA, Professor of Library and Information Science, Ewha Womans University; Sang-Duk CHOI, Research Fellow, Korean Educational Development Institute.
There has been much talk in the United Kingdom and counter-argument to the need for libraries posited through the role of Information and Communication Technologies as a delivery mechanism. What felt so exciting, so full of energy, verve, innovation and imagination was the way these technologies were being embraced and embedded into traditional service provision, making it relevant, resonant and responsive to 21st Century needs – storytelling where individuals can enter the inner-imaginative world of books through use of cameras and projection; technologies that encourage learning and active participation through play… There was a dynamism to the ideas being offered and explored.
By coming together to work in tandem with other related organisations, it’s possible for libraries to create a real and powerful force for reading and learning and for this to be both social and creative. Libraries cannot exist alone and a part of their future is in forming powerful critical masses with publishers, with authors and illustrators, with schools, with youth groups and crucially with the media so that strong messages can be created and communicated about the value and worth of the work the institutes undertake.
In concluding the talk in Seoul, it felt crucial to urge the articulation and communication of core messages and stories relating to the sector. Although libraries are often repositories for stories, there’s an argument that as institutes we have not always formulated our own story effectively.
In reflecting upon the experience of the Symposium as a whole, what feels crucial is that in the Information Age – a time when knowledge and understanding are shared across geographic boundaries, that we not only share knowledge itself as ‘assets’ but also the processes and practices that aid in its dissemination, that stimulate and inspire children and young people, tempting them into a world of thought and learning. In this South Korea felt a shining beacon with their symposium and I return to the UK filled with an optimism and a buoyancy regarding the sector despite some of the challenges of the present, the ideas from that will burn bright for a long time and has provided indelible memories…
Jake hope is a reading development and children’s book consultant. He is Chair of the Youth Libraries Group, North West and regularly reviews and commentates on children’s books and issues relating to reading.