The Liminal Library: My Talk to the SCONUL Conference


I gave this talk to the SCONUL Conference, in Gateshead, June 7 2017. Sconul is the Society of College, National and University Libraries.

This was what I intended to say, and roughly what I did say.

To Begin…

The cat is alive

The cat is dead

This is a time of superposition of wave states because tomorrow many of us vote – some may already have voted, like I have – in the most important UK General Election since 1945.

The act of observation will be important. And we speak before it.

So we won’t know if the cat is alive or dead until many, many boxes are opened – ballot boxes and boxes of postal votes around the country..

We do not know which world awaits us.

I will not be partisan. But my talk is written in the light of a possible future for your libraries and for the idea of a library that is predicated on enlightenment values, scholarship, humanism and humanity; an open, liberal, inclusive society that values every citizen and appreciates that we are all connected and interdependent, which embraces diversity and differences of all types – including philosophy and business model; and which is confident in itself – confident enough to be able to address the major challenges that face the biosphere as weather systems change, and that face the species as the food web shifts and comes close to collapse.

Each of you will have your own view of how that future can be delivered. I couldn’t possibly comment.

The Talk Proper: The Liminal Library

I want to speak of the liminal library.

Of the library in the gaps.

Of the library that exists on that numinous boundary between the atom and the bit, between the bit and the thought, between the thought and the atom.

I want to think about the specific content of an academic or university library as an imagined zone of engagement, where the academy meets itself in (almost) public.

This is not just about funding models, or staff skills and roles, or about bureaucracy and administrative overload, or about open access, journals, books, ebooks or metadata standards. They all matter, of course, enormously so, and decisions you will all make over the next few years will have real implications for the library service.

But I come to you as an outsider, the entertainment – if you’re fortunate, the reward – at the end of two long, hard days of engagement, at a point where you’re about to head home.

So I’m not going to talk in detail about ways in which libraries could more effectively share their ‘low and no’ use subscriptions via document delivery; or the notion of pre-press as a viable way forward for disseminating researchers’ findings; or the opportunities for libraries to enhance repository search; or the need to up your game for students with TEF coming along and for researchers with REF 2021 on the horizon too. You’ve already had those discussions. (I hope).

And in that capacity I want to look at the broader picture, as a long-term user of your libraries and someone who ‘comes from the Internet’ (as I was once described).

In fact, I come from somewhere much closer. I may be an outsider in the library community, but I’m not an outsider here: I’m a Geordie – born across the river that flows past this room, to parents from Jarrow and Hebburn, until I was untimely ripped from the Tyne and sent south to grow up in Northants and lose the accent.

In the Midlands I found a library.

I wrote about it for a book called A Place Free of Judgment, commissioned by Blast Theory and published earlier this year.

I grew up in a town called Corby in Northants in the 1960’s, in a council house on a ‘rough’ estate.  Corby Library was my gateway to a world that I could not have imagined otherwise, a space where I was both safe and nurtured, where the librarians encouraged my exploration and imagination, and pointed out a path that I would never have discovered otherwise.  I read the books. All the books. Any of the books. And when I discovered the science fiction section, I discovered a multitude of universes to explore. I also remember being allowed to borrow The Godfather by Mario Puzo, before I was old enough to see the film, and realising that the whole world lay before me.

And there was more: at the back of the reference section was a secret portal – a door to the library of the Technical College, located next door. I remember passing through it for the first time, the engineering and science books it contained, the world it hinted at.  I look back now and I realise that one of the reasons why I believed enough in myself to apply for and successfully get to university – the only person in the sixth form of my comprehensive school to manage it – was because the library was my runway, and I’d built up enough momentum in my time there to become airborne.

The library burned down in the late 70’s. I’d left.  I didn’t go back.

In fact I did go back, to visit if not to live, and I’ve written elsewhere about what Corby meant to me and what I think of the people who tore it down. The town is coming back, and good people live there and are working to make it a better place to live. I applaud them.

The technical college library in Corby was the first academic library I encountered. Since then there have been many.

When I was young and an undergraduate I’d sit in the Philosophy Library at Cambridge and read papers in Mind that challenged my sense of self, as I tried to write essays about the nature of truth and how language worked and whether there are synthetic a priori truths.

I would look at the librarians, happily filling out index cards, putting books on shelves and smiling at their colleagues, and want to swap places.

I didn’t know the reality of life as an academic librarian, of course.

I later went out with one – she actually worked in that same library – and since then I’ve had many friends on the inside so I’ve learned some of your secrets. I remain surprised that there isn’t an equivalent of Morse or Midsomer Murders set in a university library, with the corpses piling up each week…

The world has changed since 1980 and my dreams of librarianship. I typed my essays and had never used a computer – the first one I did use was in my third year when I was doing Experimental Psychology. It was an Acorn Atom, the precursor to the much-loved BBC Microcomputer.

This is the wifi password for an Elizabethan manor house some friends and I hire for parties.

Forty years on and we live in a society that is as dependent on access to and engagement with computers, digital data and fast networks as the one I grew up in was on electricity and the one before that on oil – although of course we still depend on both of them, and seem have added computers to the mix rather than replaced what went before.

In this, the age of electronics, the patterns of my daily life are increasingly defined by the capabilities of the tools I engage with, and I find myself reliant on internet access and my handheld networked supercomputer (or ‘phone’) as I negotiate home, work, family, friends and my engagement with culture and learning at all levels.

Most of my media consumption relies on IP – the Internet Protocol – instead of broadcasting, to the point that when our Freeview TV stopped working we didn’t get it fixed and I hardly noticed, yet if Twitter is over-capacity I get withdrawal symptoms within minutes.

The nature of the research that academic libraries support has also changed. Books and journals matter less. Catalogues, datasets and screen-based resources matter more. Machine learning augments research skills and can even (see the new Google Explore in Sheets) draw your graphs.

But there’s something more fundamental going on, I think.

This is an antique shop in Chongqing in China, where they sell antique mobile phones.

In our rapidly shifting technological landscape we are seeing new forms emerge from the old, grafting digital characteristics like immediate feedback and direct engagement onto analogue offerings like monographs, papers and books, reshaping our assumptions about what happens in the library and what academics do when they ‘publish’ and what researchers do when they … ‘research’.

This is not ‘convergence’, if that is understood as the coming together of all different forms of creative expression into a bucket of bits labelled ‘content’ that can be delivered over the network to any screen or any device.

Instead we’re seeing new forms of media life evolve, each specialised to survive in a particular niche, all competing for attention in a world that can seem saturated with stuff demanding to be watched, listened to, discussed or reviewed, and in the midst of rapid environmental change so that even the new ecosystems can quickly vanish, or just become less convivial to some forms of academic expression.

Only some of the new forms will flourish, and we’re in the middle of a period of discovery and experimentation as exciting as the early years of Gutenberg’s experiments with printing or – to my mind – the evolution of the written alphabet.

Unfortunately we can’t tell in advance which innovations are going to succeed or what this will mean for established forms of engagement, which poses a major challenge for anyone engaged in building tomorrow’s libraries. What use is a ‘digital’ strategy when everything you think of as necessary for your users could be superseded? How do you decide what to collect, how to index it and make it discoverable, and how much to pay in order to give your research community access to it?

One way to express this is to ask whether the thing we say when we say the word ‘library’ means the same as it did ten or one hundred years ago, or whether we’re using it in a different language game – not in the sense that a word can find itself used for a different purpose, like ‘gay’, or ‘digital’, or even ‘computer’, but in Witttgenstein’s sense of the role the word plays in the life of a community of users.

If the meaning of a word is its pattern of use, and we use this work to descibe a thing we do, then we find ourselves at the question: what is it that a library does?

What is it that only a library does?

And should a library do only the thing that a library does, as the world shifts and science becomes driven by the capabilities of technology and literary research relies more on Google Scholar and Menderley and Zotero than close reading of a text and augmented intelligences threaten to replace research assistants at the side of distinguished professors (and seek no acknowledgement in papers or preferment)?

What is that thing?

I think it’s about being the threshold between different forms of captured knowledge.

This is the wall of Arsenale in Venice, a city that sits between water and air.

The library sits between the world of the mind and the world of the text, but also between the mind and the network.

We know that the library has offers access to the private space of the mind, and we see it as readers sit engrossed in books or papers, sometimes dropping to the floor beside a shelf because the effort of moving to a seat would require too much detachment from the scenes inside their head conjured up by the words.

Now readers also have to have access to the shared space of the network.

Providing this is more complicated, because it requires more than shelves, seats and light to read by, but no less important. We have made this space, many of us already live significant parts of our lives in it, and a library should be a gateway to it.

And each individual library has the unique property of being the only place that is the place it is – to paraphrase Walter Benjamin’s comment about works of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Even if a room in your library is a gateway to an infinitely replicable virtual space we must always acknowledge that the combination of physical and virtual space is itself as unique as the physical space, and allow for the local reality to intrude.

This is, of course, even more so for the people, the ‘readers’ or those who are becoming readers. Each of us brings the world inside our head into contact with the world inside a book. We do that in a distinct physical space which may overlap and intersect with a virtual space. Like snowflakes, each combination has never existed before, and if you are to nurture it then you must appreciate its uniqueness as well as the commonalities we experience online.

And you need to know how.

From this perspective, the point of readers having ‘digital skills’ is not so we can replace physical spaces with online ones or physical books with electronic editions, it is to allow the two spaces to intersect to the point where there is no need to distinguish between them, to create, in libraries and other shared spaces, a sharing between real and virtual, a liminal space.

This is urgent, not because there’s a revolution happening but because it’s already over. My problem is that the people who speak of a ‘digital revolution’ don’t realise that it happened over a decade ago – we are simply living in the world that resulted, trying to make sense, to rebuild, or to build for the first time.

And often they don’t imagine the real risks.

Consider VR/AR or whatever it’s called this week. Strap in your goggles and come for a ride with me to the Augmented Library, where every user has a Microsoft Hololens or equivalent and an LibraryBot to help them navigate the collections, whether physical or virtual

Such technology will soon come to museums and galleries, replacing the cumbersome and – for me – unreadable labels.

It will come for many reasons, but one is accessibility. My vision is poor enough that I run the risk of being tackled by security every time I lean in close to read about the Monet paintings on the wall in front of me. And there’s a real problem in the new genre of blockbuster exhibitions where the crowds mean you can’t see, you can’t linger and you definitely can’t find that transcendent moment of epiphany that come from being in the presence of great art or significant artefacts.

Virtual reality may take away the need to be present, but augmented reality can bring the museum or gallery into a liminal zone between offline/online real/simulated that no only overcomes the issues of access and accessiblity but could transform the way we experience culture.

That will also be the case for the library service, once these technologies are deployed at scale.

So what can you do?

Well, I want you to choose – because that’s what libraries do. It is the thing that libraries do, above all.

Let me explain.

Earlier this year the National Archives announced their new strategy, and I was asked to write one of the short pieces to accompany it, since I’ve worked for several years inside the BBC developing partnerships that make better use of the BBC’s extensive archive.

I said this:

When the journalist Joan Didion wrote ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’ (in The White Album, 1979) she was expressing a deep truth about how we construct meaning in our lives.  Many of our stories come from those relics of the past that live in our archives, libraries and galleries. Some are newly minted; others retell and reframe the past to better understand the present. And the archive too is a story: whether creative fiction, careful scholarship or news journalism, any exploration of an archive must grapple with questions surrounding the collection itself – why and how was this material preserved?  Is this all – or is there missing work that will change my perspective? How can this selection of past material have authority?

Part of the BBC Archive’s value is that it is the creation of one institution over almost a century, giving it cohesiveness even in its incompleteness. There is an ideology that permeates it – its contents were largely decided upon by the sort of people who work for the BBC – which researchers and users should at least note this as they pass among the shelves and search the catalogues. While perhaps not always so apparent, we know that every collection was shaped in some way, and the story of that shaping must be part of our understanding and assessment of the authority of the finished product.

In writing it, and later in a seminar about radio archives with Paul Conway at King’s College London, I realised something that I’d always known but never clearly expressed: an archive – however good – is in part an excuse for forgetting. It tries to forgive the things that were not collected, to excuse their absence by curating and explaining and offering a narrative that accounts for what is there and, by not explaining what is missing, erases what is not from immediate memory.

A library is different. A library is an expressed choice, a selection from the world, a series of decisions made manifest in the collection and the datasets and the catalogue. A library does not make apologies for what is not there, it stands by what is.

A couple of years ago I went to a reading by Don Paterson of some of the poems in Forty Sonnets on the top floor of Faber & Faber, introduced by Faber’s poetry editor Matthew Hollis.

Before Don spoke, Matthew discussed what is was like to receive his manuscripts, to watch the poems as they were shaped, and he said something that has stuck with me since. He said ‘these words were DECIDED UPON’.

It’s true, and it matters, and it is your role.

You are here to decide not only what your libraries contain and what they offer but, in this time of enormous threat, what we say when we say ‘library’. To decide that it means ‘something chosen’, in contrast to the great mass of everything on offer everywhere else.

Because I see a danger that library becomes, like digital, a word that conveys no meaning at all, that makes no distinction, that has neither intension nor extension but is merely a grunt made by someone who does not appreciate how today’s scholarly environment works.

You currently have an opportunity to define for yourselves a space where to talk of the library or the library service is to raise the spirit and give hope that someone, somewhere, will help – whether you’re a struggling academic or a downhearted undergraduate or a doctoral student lost in the wild wood.

So, can we capture the sense of the library and abstract something from it that will be worthy of the name in ten or twenty or fifty years time?

Well, the best way to predict the future is to create it.

Let’s build a future we’d like to live in, not inherit one from people who don’t understand the things we value.

Let’s be bold.

Let’s fail gloriously, if we must fail.

Good luck.

I fear you need it.