Trending topics online

Keeping up with news and information in today’s digital world can be a daunting task. Anyone who uses social media for marketing or communications needs to know what is happening in the online world, so that they can engage their audience, discuss hot topics and attract people to their website or business.

Trending topics cover anything and everything – news, current affairs, sports, politics, advancements in science and technology, and the world of celebrities, fashion and gossip. Staying abreast of trending topics in areas relevant to you or your business will help you develop relevant content that your followers will find interesting.

So, what is the best way to monitor trending topics? There are several ways that you can do this, but the most reliable information about trends is likely to come from the most used social media sites and search engines.

Google is the world’s most used search engine, and provides the useful tool Google Trends, which enables us to see the topics that are being searched most frequently on the Internet. Google Trends’ charts, highlighting top trends, can be customised for your needs, showing global or national trends or what is happening in relation to specific topics.

Twitter’s popularity makes it another useful source of information about trending topics, letting you view trends that are specific to your interests or location. For example, according to Trendsmap, which maps real-time local Twitter trends, today’s popular searches in Brisbane include “Iraq”, “Abbott”, “Bishop”, “burqa” and “Ebola”.

Buzzfeed is a US news and entertainment aggregator website. Content includes everything from news to the ubiquitous animal pictures and, as it is arranged according to popularity, this site also provides a good overview of trending topics. There are many other tools, such as Swayy, Google +, Zite and Reddit that can be used to find trending information.

It is also important to monitor your own social media, responding to questions and comments, and interacting with your audience. By using social media to converse with your customers, rather than merely as a tool to push advertising, your customers are more likely to engage with you and create the buzz you’re looking for.

I am also fascinated by what makes some online topics so much more popular than others, and have been enjoying Jonah Berger’s book, Contagious: Why things catch on. Berger discusses the reasons that certain ideas or online content becomes popular or “goes viral”. He claims that it is not advertising that “sells” online ideas, but people listening to their peers. Online material that takes off is likely to include a number of attributes, including social currency, evoking emotions, and having practical value. Berger explains the importance of these (and other) concepts in his very readable and thought-provoking book.

Contagious: Why things catch on is available at State Library of Queensland. We also have a number of other books, ebooks and online information on this topic, available through our One Search catalogue. So now you can enjoy keeping up with trending topics, and understand why those topics are so hot!

twitter bird

 

Holiday reading

Borrowing from local libraries that aren’t your own?  Rural Libraries Queensland Tourist Card users tell us what they think of the service……

The Australia Council’s Arts in Daily Life – Australian Participation in the Arts survey found that, ‘Literature remains the most popular artform for Australians and 87 percent of people read some kind of literary work in the 12 months before the survey.’

It seems obvious that we would continue this engagement with literature while on holidays or travelling.  The sharing economy has been embraced by libraries for some time and recently this embrace has been extended to Queensland tourists seeking to use library services and collections.

Judy Coulthard of Douglas Libraries discussed the Rural Libraries Queensland (RLQ) Tourist Card, a partnership between local governments and the State Library of Queensland.  Available in 67 rural libraries the RLQ Tourist Card enables its user to borrow books and other items while traveling in and around Queensland.

Over 860 individual cards have been issued since the inception of the service, resulting in more than 4,500 loans of print and electronic resources. At less than 30 cents per card the total direct cost of the service to date is less than $300, with the minimal administrative overheads absorbed into existing operational activities. With more tourist members using the eresources available, particularly the emagazine platform, the on-going cost of offering the service is minimal.

Here is what some of the travelling card users think about the service…….

Lisa and Jack, Sydney NSW

Lisa and Jack, Sydney NSW

Lisa and Jake are from Sydney NSW. Lisa says:

We have travelled around Australia, via Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, finally visiting Queensland. On our first visit to Mossman Library we let the staff know that we were only stopping for a while in Mossman on our way home to Sydney. The Librarian then informed us of the facilities available. Within an hour of visiting the library we were signed up with our tourist card, advised of the ability for us to borrow and use the computer an hour for free each visit. The best part was it is available in 67 libraries throughout Queensland. My son and I have visited libraries throughout Australia at least 1 a week. We have never been offered a tourist card to borrow books or DVDs etc. Infact we are only allowed to use/read books in the library, “Not Allowed To Borrow AT ALL!” Thankyou Mossman and Queensland for setting up such a wonderful system and thank you to the fantastic staff at Mossman Library for bringing it to our attention and allowing my family to keep on reading throughout our travels.

Carol,  Lake Macquarie NSW

Carol, Lake Macquarie NSW

Carol is from the Lake Macquarie area of NSW and says:

I come up to Newell Beach each winter and stay for about 4 months. I really appreciate the opening up of the library services to tourists as I am a prolific reader and books are my passion. Maybe the library system will reward returning tourist members with being able to reserve books in the future.

Jack from Sydney, NSW says:

I’m visiting from Sydney and staying until the end of October. The tourist card allows me a great opportunity to learn on a low budget about a wide range of subjects from gardening and sustainable living to glow in the dark fungi. The tourist card has contributed greatly to my visit giving me access to knowledge quickly and easily.

Steve travelling with Fiona and their son Angus from Tasmania says:

Having a four year old who consumes many books a day it is impossible to carry books during holidays. For our family the tourist card concept and service provided was exceptional. The variety of children’s books at such a small facility was exceptional. We have been borrowing children’s books and children’s audio books. The tourist card has contributed very much to our holiday experience and would be a significant factor in returning to holiday in Queensland.

Have you used library services while travelling away from home?  Are there other ways in which cultural institutions could be catering for tourists?  Please share your thoughts in the comments box.

This article was originally published on the Arts Queensland, Arts for all Queenslanders blog.

View the full article at http://www.arts.qld.gov.au/blog/index.php/holiday-reading/

Behind the scenes – Discovery Services

Behind the ‘staff only doors’ of  State Library many staff and volunteers work everyday on a range of activities for our clients today, and for future users. Over the next few months we will be highlighting some of these activities and staff to give you a behind the scenes view of the library.

Coordinated by Discovery Services, a team of dedicated SLQ volunteers have been hard at work this year on a project to transcribe details from nearly 2, 500 pages of The Queenslander newspaper published from 1914 – 1919. These pages come from Pictorial Supplements that were included in the newspaper each week, showing glimpses of life across Queensland, and from around the world.

Although The Queenslander is digitised and available online, the microfilm that was used for the digitisation does not always provide enough detail of the photographs and the captions are often very difficult to read. State Library  has digitised all of these pages at very high resolution so that amazing clarity and detail in the images is now revealed.

Here is an example from the digitised microfilm.

Entertaining Y.M.C.A. soldiers

"Entertaining Y.M.C.A. soldiers" from digitised microfilm

The same image from the newly digitised page.

Entertaining Y.M.C.A. soldiers

"Entertaining Y.M.C.A. soldiers" digitised at high resolution

One of the most exacting, but most valuable parts of the work has been the transcription of the names of just over 26, 000 Queensland soldiers whose portraits were published in the newspapers before they left Australia to fight in the First World War. When the project is completed in April 2015 these individual soldier portraits and all of the pages that have been digitised will be available on One Search, the library catalogue to view and to download for free.

More information about volunteering at State Library of Queensland

Become a digital volunteer through Pitch In!

Learn more about Q ANZAC 100: Memories for a New Generation, SLQ’s four year project around the centenary of the First World War.

View The Queenslander Pictorial Supplements in One Search, the library catalogue.

Margaret Warren, Coordinator, Discovery Services

Libraries and Structural Change 6

My last post juxtaposed the passionate way communities in Britain and the United States have invariably responded to the wave of cuts to public library funding that have swept those countries in recent years with what I take to be the pervasiveness of the view usually invoked to justify such cuts – that the institution of the public library is in decline. How troubling it is when the narratives by which the world is understood foretell the loss of something cherished.
Public library use may be increasing in the United States but in many parts of the world it has certainly been decreasing for some time. But even where use of public libraries is in decline, communities still rise passionately in their defence when they’re threatened. How is it that something can be used less but valued no less strongly?

Our own research has repeatedly shown that positive feelings about libraries correlate only weakly with levels of use. It also shows that the marked tendency for people to feel in some way special when they’re visiting a library varies surprisingly little with what people actually do while visiting. Even activities that in any other context would be generally considered fairly unremarkable – homework, checking emails, fiddling with a mobile device, gazing into space etc., take on something of a hallowed quality when undertaken in a library. Libraries, it seems, have this enormously powerful symbolic resonance with roots extending beyond the here and now, even beyond personal experience. On entering a library; even on simply thinking about libraries, a promise starts to resonate.

A promise is an assurance that something will or won’t happen; it engenders a sense of expectation. Conversely, a promise may be taken as implied by a sense of expectation, even without being literally or obviously declared. The sort of expectation engendered by spring for instance, or libraries, may be taken as implying a promise.

A promise may be fairly universally recognised without being clearly understood. For example, it’s hard to say what the promise of spring, or libraries, is exactly – the expectations that spring or libraries respectively engender or what it is about spring or libraries which respectively engender them. In fact ‘promise’ tends to be used to signify expectation and its causes when we don’t really know what we’re talking about, while being dead certain about what we mean.

A promise can endure, sometimes for a long time, without fulfilment. Hence public libraries continue to be highly valued, even amongst the cohort that rarely or never visits a public library, steadily growing in some places. Sometimes the divergence between a promise and its fulfilment may become too great, or go on for too long, and the promise dims in people’s minds. But it’s quite possible, common even, for a promise and its agent to be in elliptical orbit around each other, sometimes rushing towards each other, before racing away on what, to the ignorant or faithless eye, seem to be sundering trajectories.

Nasa, 1986 http://www.space.com/15114-photos-comets-amazing-images.html

Halley's Comet, 1986. Comets travel into deepest darkest space before returning faithfully to their sun.

That the promise of libraries floats remarkably freely from what libraries actually do confounds the orthodox identification of value with utility. Not obviously rooted in any particular use or combination of uses, the promise may come to be distrusted as a form of irrational sentimentality, dismissed as inward or backward looking in favour of something else made of sterner stuff, more in keeping with sober utilitarian discourse – that libraries are good for educational outcomes, for instance, or social cohesion or even economic growth.

That libraries demonstrably have all sorts of positive outcomes is great, but misses the point – why they’re actually valued. In fact it seems more likely that libraries have all sorts of wonderful outcomes because they are so deeply valued – not the other way round. Do libraries do good because they’re loved or are they loved because they do good? These are important questions with enormous implications for what libraries do and also what policy makers expect of them or require them to do.

The issue here isn’t whether value should or shouldn’t be reducible to utility. If value lies in the eye of the beholder then surely the obvious place to start in understanding what makes something valuable is the sense of value it evokes – its promise. No doubt at the root of the promise of libraries is something libraries actually do, or used to do or even might do, however understanding exactly what that is depends on starting from the right end – with the promise, rather than with preconceptions about what constitutes value. Being merely useful doesn’t necessarily make something valuable. To be valuable libraries needs to be what they’re valued for. But what is that exactly? What exactly is it about libraries that summons such an extraordinary sense of promise?

The most epic journeys may start with the simplest of questions and sometimes end up answering some other, possibly more interesting, question. Take Christopher Columbus, who thought it might be quicker to get to the Orient by sailing west rather than east. This was generally considered a crazy idea and he struggled to gain the funding required to discover America.

Bibliothèque Nationale de France http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyages_of_Christopher_Columbus#mediaviewer/File:ColombusMap.jpg

Columbus's dangerously optimistic map, drawn circa 1490 in the workshop of Bartolomeo and Christopher Columbus in Lisbon.

Christopher Columbus wasn’t considered crazy because, as popular myth would have it, he believed the world was round when everybody else laboured under the delusion that it was flat; for by that time the shape of the world was generally understood. He was considered crazy because (a) reliable land routes to the East had been established for some time and (b) the prevailing consensus, correct as it turned out, was that the world was much bigger than he optimistically thought.

I often think of Christopher Columbus, clutching his map, doggedly going from one financier to another, at each audience getting a little too excited perhaps, tripping over his words…

By Columbus’s time the shape of the world was generally understood, but perhaps what distinguishes him is a preparedness to believe his own dangerously optimistic map. When he reached the West Indies he confidently assumed he’d reached India. The Americas stood in the way of his voyage to the Orient. Their discovery was a mistake.

Posted in Libraries, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

3 comments

  1. Thanks Tim for another of these thoughtful posts. I’m enjoying them immensely. I’m guilty of loving libraries – I even work in a library – but I still under-utilise them.

    I think one factor in our society today is time; we tend not to have -or allow ourselves to have -the time to gaze into space. Libraries are like island holidays – they are great to look at, we love the idea that we can go, that we can recharge spiritually, but in reality, we hardly ever actually do it.

  2. Dear Tim, I look forward to reading your thoughtful posts. Your point about Columbus is well made. There have been many times when serendipity has led me in different directions to what I had originally plotted while undertaking research in libraries. Where on goal has led to another. Carefully selected collections eliminate dead ends but allow for other possibilities, other paths to truth and understanding.

    I think the promise of the combined resources of the world’s libraries, archives, and museums is this plenitude of possibilities.

    Also the beauty of cultural collections that help us to, in the words of Umberto Eco, “remember what we have forgotten, and what we do not yet know.”

    A couple of years ago in the Library of Congress I stood in front of the Waldseemuller map of the world made in 1507. The first map to show the word and place named America. The map was discovered in 1901 in the library of Prince Johannes zu Waldburg-Wolfegg in Schloss Wolfegg in Württemberg, Germany by the Jesuit historian and cartographer Joseph Fischer. It remained there until 2001 when the United States Library of Congress purchased it from Waldburg-Wolfegg-Waldsee for ten million dollars.

    Simon Farley
    Fryer Library, University of Queensland

  3. For me, the promise of a library is that of a consistent ‘third space.’ Work, home, other. School, home, other. In a chaotic world, it can provide solidarity and solitude. It’s sheer physicality and tangible materials can re-connect mind and body, in a predominately digitised landscape. A library is the neutral party, amidst the warring extremes. It promises unspoken tolerance, inclusion, and hope for a brighter future through knowledge and empowerment in a way that commercial enterprise, by design, cannot.

    Although I wouldn’t consider this a ‘promise’ per say, I think we have a profound, collective emotional connection to libraries that drives the inconsistencies with the rational argument for why they are important. We intuitively understand that libraries are an important part of our past, and most of us have associated positive memories to match. The feeling of a weighty book in our hands; the smell of the old pages; the sound of silence; the feeling of being lonely, but not alone…these are all written into our cultural DNA. It’s not a statement – it’s a feeling, and feelings are notoriously difficult to describe.

    As with any type of change and subsequent growth, I think it’s important to acknowledge what’s still working within the traditional library framework and expand on those bright spots, while giving ourselves permission to move on from the pieces that are better left to float along in the vast oceans of the past.

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Brisbane Open House

Discover our city’s rich history, diverse architecture, and the hidden workings of many of our remarkable buildings at Brisbane Open House on the weekend of 11 and 12 October.

This free event gives Brisbane residents and visitors a unique opportunity to explore behind the scenes of many of our historical, architectural and working buildings. Each year since 2010, Brisbane Open House has opened the doors of our city, enabling us to discover and engage with a wide range of buildings and spaces through guided and self-guided tours. This year, over 90 buildings are involved in the program, including commercial, cultural, religious, heritage, educational, sporting and residential locations throughout the city. Some venues require bookings for tours, while others allow general access within set times.

A series of free talks also forms part of the programme, featuring influential architects, designers and planners, discussing the ideas and influences that shape our city.

Children are welcome to any of the venues and tours, and indeed many of the buildings cater for families by providing activities and events specifically for children.

Over the past few years my visits have included the Queensland Performing Arts Centre’s fascinating backstage tour, Brisbane Square Library (adults and children love watching the book sorting machine in action!), the Masonic Memorial Temple and Old Government House. All of these venues have been well worth visiting and I am now busily planning this year’s itinerary.

State Library of Queensland is also included in the Brisbane Open House programme, hosting several bookable guided tours as well as general access on both days. On Saturday, you can tour our climate controlled repository, where we store rare and restricted material, and the conservation lab, where experts preserve and repair items. On the Sunday, tours of SLQ’s award-winning building will feature Fiona Foley’s stunning Black Opium artwork, the magnificent Queensland Terrace, and a special curator’s tour of the Hot Modernism exhibition.

We look forward to welcoming you and showing off our spectacular building and modern facilities. It will also be the last chance to see Hot Modernism, which closes on 12 October.

View the Brisbane Open House website at http://brisbaneopenhouse.com.au/ for tour tips, to plan your itinerary, book tours and find out opening times.

To book tours of SLQ, visit our booking page.

 

State Library of Queensland

State Library of Queensland

Download high resolution images from our collection for free

Immediate access to 60,000 high resolution historic and contemporary Queensland images is now available free from State Library of Queensland. Out-of-copyright and Creative Commons-licenced images can now be directly downloaded through One Search, the library catalogue.

These files are of a much higher quality than the other versions available on the catalogue, which are optimised for viewing online. The high resolution files mean each image can be viewed in great detail and provides opportunities for use in the creation of new works and in many other ways – for websites and blogs, school work, academic research and more.

Everything from early photographs of Brisbane in the 1870s to contemporary photos of the Ekka are included.

Gardens Point in Brisbane ca. 1870

Gardens Point in Brisbane ca. 1870

Download this image here.

To download high resolution images go to One Search, the library catalogue and search for images. When you find the image you want, select the Online option to view and then click on the download icon to download the image. The files are usually more than 25 mB so download time depends on network speed. There’s more information about high resolution files on our website to help you consider what is the best type of file for your purpose.

We do ask that State Library of Queensland is attributed as the source when images are used. Information on attributing State Library of Queensland can be found on our website.
We will continue to provide a image reproduction service, offering a high quality photographic print of items held in our collections. Through this service, and subject to copyright and access conditions, you may also be able to order a digital file or photographic print or items that are in copyright.

Ferris wheel at the Ekka, 2009

Ferris wheel at the Ekka, 2009

Download this image here.

We also love to hear how people are using digital content from our collections. You can let us know via our online feedback form. We were excited to hear from someone in London who let us know how they were using an image from our collection.

Media enquiries: Cathy Stacey, SLQ Communications, 07 3842 9346 | cathy.stacey@slq.qld.gov.au
Media release

Light Horse Commemoration Ride

A spectacular commemorative ride of up to 100 horses from the Australian Light Horse Association will take place through Brisbane streets from 5pm on Saturday 27 September. The parade will travel along Adelaide Street, between George and Creek Streets, honouring the Light Horsemen of World War One.

As well as the commemorative ride, the Courier Mail Piazza in the South Bank Parklands will host a special event from 12-6pm, giving visitors a glimpse of the daily lives of soldiers during the First World War. The exhibition will include educational displays, live performances of soldier training exercises as they would have been done in 1914, and members of the Australian Light Horse Association.

2nd Australian Light Horse Regiment, 1914.

2nd Australian Light Horse Regiment, 1914.

These events are part of the Queensland Government’s ANZAC centenary program, and form an official part of the Brisbane Festival’s Riverfire celebrations, so visitors can enjoy this exciting opportunity before the fireworks begin later in the evening.

For more information about these events, visit the ANZAC Centenary Queensland website.

Soldiers of the 5th Light Horse embarking for overseas,1914.

Soldiers of the 5th Light Horse embarking for overseas,1914.

State Library of Queensland has a collection of photographs of Australian Light Horse Regiments, before their departure to war, during embarkation, and on overseas service. These evocative images can be viewed through our catalogue by searching Light Horse images.

Light Horse patrol passing through Zernukah, Israel, 1914-1918.

Light Horse patrol passing through Zernukah, Israel, 1914-1918.

National Parkinson’s Month

September is National Parkinson’s Month, raising awareness of Parkinson’s Disease, its symptoms, treatments, the services and support available to sufferers and carers, and the research being undertaken to improve quality of life for people with the disease.

Approximately 100,000 Australians have Parkinson’s, with prevalence increasing by about 4% per year and expected to double by 2030. Approximately 30 Australians are diagnosed with the disease every day. It can affect adults of any age, and roughly 20% of people diagnosed are of working age. The most common age for diagnosis is 50-60.

Parkinson’s Disease affects the brain, reducing production of the chemical dopamine. This causes movements to become slower, and sufferers may experience shaking or tremors, muscle rigidity and instability. Everyday activities, such as walking, getting dressed, swallowing, speaking, writing and using a computer may become difficult and cause feelings of frustration, anxiety and isolation.

There are many variations in the symptoms exhibited. Most of us are familiar with the characteristic tremors, and awareness of the disease has increased in the last decade with the acknowledgment of high profile sufferers, such as Michael J Fox, Muhammad Ali and Billy Connolly. However, as people with this disease will experience symptoms in their own way, and as the early signs are usually mild, it may be difficult to diagnose.

I only became aware of the various symptoms of Parkinson’s when my mother was diagnosed about ten years ago, after we noticed changes in her gait. Over the years, symptoms can change and develop, so medication is constantly reviewed and adjusted, and other devices can be introduced to help with mobility and speech. It is vital that sufferers of this disease feel supported and are given information to help them recognise, manage and discuss their symptoms. It is also crucial that family and carers understand Parkinson’s and its impact on physical and mental wellbeing.

State Library of Queensland has a variety of practical and useful resources for anyone interested in finding out more about Parkinson’s Disease. We have books, ebooks, journals and online resources that range from in-depth medical research reports to down-to-earth information for people learning to cope with Parkinson’s in their daily lives. Books such as Parkinson’s Disease For Dummies, Ask the Doctor About Parkinson’s Disease, and clear and concise information in the Health & Wellness Resource Center, provide practical information on how to maintain a positive attitude and lead an active, productive life. By being informed, people with Parkinson’s can ensure they have an accurate diagnosis, work effectively with their doctors to manage symptoms, and take charge of their lives.

Find information on Parkinson’s Disease at SLQ by searching on our One Search catalogue.

Further information and links to support services are available at Parkinson’s Queensland’s website.

 

Muhammad Ali in Davos, 2006,  at the age of 64. Ali showed signs of Parkinson’s Disease from the age of 38. CC BY-SA 2.0

Muhammad Ali in Davos, 2006, at the age of 64. Ali showed signs of Parkinson’s Disease from the age of 38. CC BY-SA 2.0

GEM STORIES

A great bonus for librarians helping people with their enquiries or research is that we come across some fascinating facts, intriguing tales about people and families, and amazing stories from around the world.

One of our librarians recently assisted a client with some research on the Black Star of Queensland, which is the world’s largest gem-quality star sapphire, originally weighing in at 1165 carats. The stone was reportedly found by 12-year-old Roy Spencer in the mid-1930s in the Queensland gem fields near Anakie. Roy showed the stone to his miner father, Harry, who assumed that it was merely a large black crystal. Not realising the value of the stone with its rough exterior, the family used it as a doorstop in their home for over a decade, until Harry took a closer look and discovered the gem hidden within.

The sapphire was eventually sold to the Kazanjian brothers, jewellers in Los Angeles, who painstakingly shaped it to a smooth convex oval of 733 carats. As the stone was revealed and shaped, a perfect asterism, or six pointed star, was revealed in its centre – a phenomenon formed by the reflection of light from matter that was trapped in the stone when it was created millions of years ago. When the stone is viewed under a light source, it produces an illusion of a floating star in the black stone. This quirk of nature made this already valuable stone the largest star sapphire in history, and one of the most exquisite jewels in the world. It has been displayed in Europe and the USA, worn by Cher, and has been the subject of ownership disputes. It is now privately owned by an unidentified person.

The remarkable sequel to the discovery of the Black Star of Queensland came just a few months after the stone was cut and exhibited, when a woman stubbed her toe on a stone a mere few hundred yards from where the Black Star had been found. Picking up the offending stone, which was said to be the size of a turkey’s egg, she discovered a deep blue sapphire weighing an enormous 1996.5 carats. This incredible gem was also bought by the Kazanjian brothers, who fashioned it into a replica of Abraham Lincoln’s head weighing 1318 carats.

It was fascinating looking back through articles and reports from around the world about these discoveries. This week we also recounted this story in a radio segment on 4BC. Each Monday at 10.20am we will be sharing some of the interesting stories that come to us, talking about how we have been able to help people unearth facts and uncover their own gems.

Black Star of Queensland Star Sapphire

Black Star of Queensland Star Sapphire CC BY-SA 2.0 greyloch - http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3129/2554268361_dcb7bd1e06_z.jpg

 

Libraries and structural change; Post 5

These are things I keep banging on about: that libraries continue to evoke a powerful sense of promise; that not much more than twenty years ago the promise of libraries was fairly readily identified with a more or less stable set of practices but since then the relationship between promise and practice has become uncertain.

In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis many municipal governments across Britain and the United States, having adopted austerity policies (either in accord with the constraints or requirements imposed by state or national governments or by their own volition) sought savings in cutting public library funding. Invariably communities responded with a depth of feeling conveying  the enormous value of public libraries perhaps more powerfully and incontrovertibly than anything else.

Park Slope kids protesting against budget cuts outside their library in May 2013, accompanied by the President & CEO of the Brooklyn Public Library, Linda E. Johnson. Picture credit: Brooklyn Public Library

What exactly is taken away when a community loses its library? I’m always struck by the story of children in a part of Brooklyn, New York City, encircling their library, holding hands; one small, poignant response to a massive cut to the Brooklyn Public Library in the 2013-14 New York City budget – nearly $30 million or over 30% of the library’s operating budget.

New York City’s administration had been attempting to impose deep cuts on all three of New York City’s library systems since 2008. Cuts incorporated in annual City budgets were always wound back in the legislative process, but always only partially. Funding to the Brooklyn Public Library had already decreased 19% over five years when the 2013-14 City budget was brought down.

Within weeks of children encircling the Park Slope branch of the Brooklyn Public Library New Yorkers elected a mayor with quite different policies to his predecessor and quite a different take on the value of public libraries. Library funding was restored and, recently, has even been increased. But such a happy ending is exceptional. Elsewhere public libraries have not fared so well. In Britain 1,000 (over 20%) have been forced to close since 2009.

Cuts to public library funding are usually advocated on the basis that the rise of new technologies and the availability of alternative sources of information have diminished the need for public libraries. Any idea that the need for a surviving part of the much reduced structure of public provision is diminishing may appeal to some. More opaquely, ambivalence towards the democratic values foundational to the institution of the public library – mass enlightenment, the democratisation of intellectual freedom and so on – may constitute another ulterior motive for casting doubt on the future of public libraries. But notwithstanding ulterior motives, it does seem that such doubts are harboured ever more widely, even if only unconsciously or with the barest consideration. Thus evidence that public libraries are thriving in many parts of the world is increasingly likely to come as a surprise. Certainly it surprises me.

While looking into cuts to public libraries in the United States I came across a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center, Library Services in the Digital Age. At first I took it to be just another celebration of the virtualisation of library services but it turned out to be the findings of empirical research into whether or not public libraries are maintaining a place in the lives of Americans, in what is undeniably a digital age.

According to the Pew report, 59% of Americans aged 16 and older had visited a public library or had used online public library services within the previous twelve months. Of that cohort 52% said that over the last five years their use had not changed, 26% said their use had increased and only 22% said their use had decreased. 91% of Americans ages 16 and older say public libraries are important to their communities and 76% say libraries are important to them and their families.

Other findings of this research are equally surprising, at least to me:

  • 80% of Americans aged 16 years and older say that borrowing books is a “very important” service libraries provide.
  • 80% say reference librarians are a “very important” service of libraries

Evidence that in some difficult-to-ignore parts of the world – like the United States – public libraries are thriving and that traditional attributes of a library – books for instance, or librarians – continue to be valued may be surprising. But perhaps this only highlights the fact that some ideas are impervious to evidence, as does the way the enduring need for public libraries is denied in justifying crippling cuts even to thriving library services. Take the Brooklyn Public Library: Use increased over each of the seven years it faced crippling cuts. Is it possible for something to be needed less but used more?

A legacy of the recent Speak Up For The Branches campaign. Picture credit: Brooklyn Public Library

It’s not all that remarkable to believe things in the face of contradictory evidence. What’s more remarkable is believing contradictory things – for instance, deeply valuing your own public library – perhaps even enough to stand around it holding hands if it was ever threatened – but simultaneously believing that public libraries face inevitable decline. It’s a pity that the Pew survey didn’t include the question, “Do you think that public libraries have a future?” If I was asked this question I would reflexively say, “No, because the rise of new technologies and the availability of alternative sources of information is making them redundant”. But however robotically I would say this, I would say it with sorrow, and also a sense of confusion for feeling somehow compelled to say it, without knowing why.

How miserable it is to cherish something while simultaneously feeling resigned to its loss – because of the remorseless march of structural change or because ‘discretionary’ public services like libraries have become luxuries that communities can’t afford, or for some other unfathomable reason.

I showed a draft of this post to a colleague a week or two ago. She said it was OK, if a little gloomy. I delayed doing anything with it while I agonised about her remark. For sure I’m talking about a certain type of gloominess, but that’s not necessarily the same thing as being gloomy.

It’s a wonderful word: gloom. Say it to yourself and you might find yourself laughing with relief. Gloom, of course, is a protective carapace around a vibrant promise. But the thing about a promise is that it’s its own affirmation. It shines on in the face of hostile circumstances, even in spite of gloom.

No doubt the cruel ritual of being dangled over an abyss every year for the past five years caused gloom within the Brooklyn Public Library. But that’s not what you see when you look at its website, or back through its Facebook page or peruse the public record of its trials and tribulations. Something else shines through – something vital, irrepressible, incontrovertible – definitely reason to be cheerful.

Do libraries continue to be necessary to fulfilment of the promise of libraries? Much flows from the answer to this demanding question; demanding because before you can legitimately answer it you have to really deeply grasp what the promise is; you have to grasp what actually happens in public libraries – myriad small miracles every day. I’ll explore these matters further in my next few posts. Watch out for them; every two weeks, for a while.

This video, part of a campaign to extend the opening hours of New York public libraries has some wonderful moments.