Neil Gaiman, reading and libraries

As I was wondering what to share with our ILN community in the last week before we go on holidays, holidays that I am very much looking forward to after a very busy year,  I came across again Neil Gaiman’s Reading Agency Lecture from 2013. I had read about it at the time but had never listened to the full speech. I stopped for a moment and did so and was so glad that I did that I wanted to share it with you again.

He speaks about his experiences with reading and reminded me of my own. I don’t find enough time to read fiction these days  – I’m often busy with work or the ILN or doing boring grown up things like cleaning the house or cooking dinner. But then just last weekend I got to stop for a minute and devoured a book in 2 days, and it was just such a joy for me, like seeing a dear old friend and saying (and really meaning it) I can’t believe it’s been so long since we spent time together.

I also loved his thoughts about libraries:

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.

I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. That’s about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need

Libraries are places that people go to for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before – books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.

Fiction/genre sign by Ellen Forsyth used under creative commons license CC BY-SA 2.0

Fiction/genre sign by Ellen Forsyth used under creative commons license CC BY-SA 2.0

I highly encourage you, as the year winds down, to spend a bit time listening to this talk, thinking about the role that reading has played in your life and imagining the world without it. Having done so I plan to spend some of my holidays doing something I love… reading, escaping and imaging the world of the future.


P.S. If you can’t load the video there’s also a transcript in the Guardian.

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