Saturday, 30 April 2011

No Furniture So Charming retrospective

So shortly before dashing off to Holland, Jon and me took part in the London Word Festival event 'No Furniture So Charming', an evening of speculation on the idea of the future library (see post below).

NFSC was a well organised and attended event, held upstairs at the Bethnal Green Library (which is a lovely library. Do visit it - good poetry section) and organised into bouts of quickfire microlectures, interspersed with panel discussions by prominent information professionals.

The strict five minute talk-time rule was enforced by loudly stamping a book and shushing any overrunning speaker, an idea I wasn't that keen on. Sure, a schedule is a schedule, but there's something uncomfortable about an entire room ganging up on a lone individual, and the first speaker didn't get to finish his sentence before being sent offstage. One audience member liked it even less than me, though. An information professional himself, he was very vocal about his 'disgust' at these reinforced stereotypes of librarians as shushers and stampers, and the naive fetishism of the book in the speeches he'd seen. He made some interesting points and it's good to see passion for a subject, especially one under threat. Certainly a spot of controversy can keep things spicy, and host Travis Elborough addressed the situation well.

Anyway, onto the main entertainment. The speeches themselves were varied and many had intriguing takes on the subject, ranging from Nicky Kirk's revamping of the actual architectural layout of the future library into a cathedral of learning, complete with soundproofing and annexed areas for different purposes, to the value and potential of mobile libraries, to nerdy passion for books in general.

Our presentation was a short text adventure, designed to illustrate in a lighthearted way the potential for a the beginnings of a virtual library, kicking off, as computer games have, with a simple format, something to build on in order to create whole worlds unrestricted by space, social limits or physics. Although tongue-in-cheek, we wanted to address the point that pure nostalgia will not save even the most beloved of physical buildings from the financial axe, and perhaps it is wise to make contingency plans.

One of the most interesting microlectures was Rachel Coldicutt's piece on the joy to be found in being denied the exact thing you seek, and the resulting ricochet effect that can lead you to happen upon something even more interesting. In an age where almost everything is speedily accessible online, her idea of restriction as an inspirational force, almost like a strict poetic form determining your choices and making you expand your phraseology, is an appealing one.

The panel were invaluable to keeping the event focused on the issues facing the sector at the moment - where we as members of the public can romanticise and guess at the use and value of libraries, having professionals present who can quote relevant statistics and give clear examples of usage patterns helps to rein in the pure adoration for books, which, though vital to the survival of libraries, will not cut it when facing off against a government with money on the brain. Perhaps if the event is repeated next year, more librarians as presenters would be good.

The most reassuring thing to emerge from 'No Furniture So Charming' is the knowledge that this is still such a complex issue, with so much debate surrounding the actual role libraries are, or should be adopting, that marketing men and those wishing to privatise, rebrand and commercialise public libraries wouldn't have a clue where to start.


London Word Festival is still going on! Check out the other treats on offer at

No comments: