A public haven for private pursuits

August 11, 2000

Research methods used to gauge wartime morale have been applied to Britain's public libraries. Alistair Black reports

On Monday, the public library celebrates its 150th birthday - the anniversary of royal assent to the first Public Libraries Act.

The act's authors and supporters hoped that giving local authorities the power to charge a rate for establishing and maintaining free libraries open to all would enrich civilisation. They anticipated that public libraries would improve popular taste and behaviour, educate citizens in the workings of the market economy, provide workers with skills and help calm class tensions. Thus, even if its users have been unaware of it, the apparently innocuous cultural institution of the public library has been asked to fulfil serious social and economic functions from the start.

And while in many respects public libraries are an unremarkable ingredient of British life, they are fascinating sociologically. As sites of social interaction, instruments of self-realisation and arenas where culture is vigorously contested, public libraries are worthy of serious research and analysis.

Anecdotal evidence alone cannot provide a scientific account of current public library provision or use, and surveys have their limitations. Answers may be coloured by a "social desirability" factor because the public library does the sort of work people feel they should be seen praising; and surveys, pitched as they often are at the level of assessing service efficiency, tend towards a mere ticking of boxes and rarely contain detailed, qualitative commentary on research questions. Research based on in-depth interviews with users is also inevitably tainted by researcher participation.

The shortcomings of these traditional ways of researching how users view the public library make the autobiographical method used by the Mass-Observation Archive highly appealing.

The work of the Mass-Observation Archive at the University of Sussex began in its present form in 1981. It is based on methods employed by the earlier market research organisation Mass-Observation, which was established in 1937 to study how ordinary British people lived, thought and behaved. Early in the second world war, the organisation was commissioned by the government to monitor and record the morale of the British people. Following a "participant observation" mode of investigation, covert observers operating in all areas of life - factories, pubs, air-raid shelters - logged the mood of citizens.

The organisation also employed a panel of volunteer observers to keep diaries and to respond periodically to questionnaires. This "self-documentation" method of investigation forms the basis of the Mass-Observation Archive's work today.

Volunteers are self-selected. As a group they are not representative of the British public. Women outnumber men three to one on the panel, ethnic minorities are severely under-represented, the panel's social complexion is weighted towards the higher end of the social scale, and the South of England is the most common place of residence. Nonetheless, the work of the panel provides immensely detailed and valuable qualitative data on British life and attitudes.

Mass-Observation autobiography tends towards the informal, driven less by a desire to paint one's life experiences in detail than to use personal experiences to comment on society. Over the past two decades, thousands of volunteers have contributed observations on a variety of topics. Topics are presented in the form of "directives" - open-ended, loosely structured questionnaires that contain a series of prompts designed to encourage contributors to write at length and in detail.

Research on the use of public libraries was part of one recent archive directive. Commissioned by Leeds Metropolitan University's School of Information Management and funded by the Library and Information Commission, its aim was to provide an open-access commentary on the public library - one that could help reveal what the public library does well, what it does badly and what it means to its frequent and occasional patrons, as well as its non-users.

Evidence submitted by volunteers reflects, in essence, the opinion of "middle England", which, notwithstanding the public library's appeal across society, could be considered its core constituency in terms of class and culture. The directive attracted the interest of 231 volunteer observers and written submissions ranging in length from a few hundred to thousands of words.

The evidence submitted delivers a split verdict. Libraries are seen as popular and safe places that we trust and appreciate - one of the more respected local government services.

Asked to think of words that best describe the public library, one user responded with "congenial, welcoming, friendly, helpful, inviting and pleasant". Another viewed public libraries as "amazing wonderful places" to be "cherished at all cost".

Virtually no observers were able to recognise from their own experience the conservative, detached and authoritarian librarian stereotype of the frumpy, bespectacled spinster female who persistently calls for silence and generally rules the library roost. On the contrary, staff were often seen as "quiet, efficient and courteous", eager to keep up with the times.

But there were also less flattering impressions. Public libraries were seen as run-down, endangered and forgotten, "lagging" in their service provision. "My impression of a public library is one of yesteryear," wrote one critic. Another saw her local library as "slightly shabby and not very well organised". Some viewed staff as aloof, appearing "very busy achieving very little".

This divergence of opinion was evident in various aspects of library use. Modern library buildings were widely praised as being airy, bright and user-friendly, but others wrote critically of poor accommodation or inappropriate designs. Many pointed to the need for the type of amenities, such as cafes, now visible in the chain bookshops. Toilets were seen as crucial.

Observers were mostly adamant that libraries should not become more commercialised, and they rejected firmly the idea of charging for borrowing books or accessing the internet. Some argued, however, that it was unjust for users to be subsidised by non-users.

On the question of social exclusion, many thought that public libraries are, in general, "meeting the needs of all sorts of groups of people". However, there was also the view that "the people most likely to use public libraries are white, articulate and middle class". In short, they are "sadly underused by the very people who need them most", by those "nervous of forms to fill".

As for the role of the public library in the information society, most saw new information and communications technologies as merely another set of tools, albeit an important one, in the public library's armoury.

Pronouncements about public libraries going online were viewed by one observer as "so much political hyperbole", while the notion of the "library without walls" was received without fuss by respondents keen to emphasise the traditional role of the library as "havens of tranquillity" and "worlds of silence and intelligence". Time and again, observers described their libraries as places that, although patently public, provide a private space for the self-realisation that surely remains the library's essence.

Alistair Black is reader in information studies at Leeds Metropolitan University. A report on the mass observation of the public library is available from Resource: The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries. Evidence from the observation is also reported in the author's The Public Library in Britain 1914-2000, published by The British Library, Pounds 30.00.

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