‘Current challenges facing libraries and books’: a public lecture by John Scally

‘Everything is changing, but nothing is new: some current challenges facing libraries and books’: a public lecture by Dr. John Scally on 1st October, 2015


To paraphrase the intriguing title of this lecture: libraries have seen it all before.
Dr. John Scally, director of the NLS, used a potted history to effectively illustrate that, since the great library of Alexandria to the present day, libraries have always faced technological challenges. By presenting a survival plan for the 21st century, that can be adopted by any library, it is Dr. Scally’s aim to ensure the NLS stays true to its fundamental principle as a protector of its 20 million books and other media, yet remains relevant to library users today and in the future. The main ways of achieving this are:

To assimilate technological advances.
Libraries, Scally argued, have always assimilated new technologies. By co-opting the very technologies that now seem to threaten them, libraries can continue to thrive. The current challenge is to find digital ways to ease access to all material available in the library with the support of multi-skilled librarians.

Not to be unsettled by prophecies of doom.
New technologies often announce themselves with great fanfare, claiming to make existing media obsolete. The Kindle briefly looked like the end of the book as we knew it. But this has turned out to be a false prophecy; we are currently witnessing sales of the Kindle and other e-readers levelling out, while sales of printed books remain robust.


To match the resources of the institution to the needs of the community it serves.
Dr. Scally is not an advocate of a library template. He argued, rather, that each library should reflect the different needs of the community it serves. A series of slides showcased some recently-built libraries. The stunning Sir Duncan Rice Library at the University of Aberdeen looks like a giant ice cube: inspired by the cool northern light and ice, it boasts an equally impressive interior that facilitates access to books and other media for its users. Dr Scally reflected, as well, on the local public library of his childhood, which provided an exciting supply of “free” books to its young reader.

To look beyond short term trends.
Dr. Scally outlined the first strategic plan that the NLS has drawn up. In writing it, he insisted that it should be non-corporate in tone and intelligible to all. All members of the library staff have a valid contribution to make towards achieving the library’s strategic goals. Scally offered a glimpse at the next 5 years for the NLS.

In this time, the library will maintain its responsibility for the memory of the nation, and safeguard the 20 million or so books and other media in its collections. It will give priority to digitising material to make it more widely available both within and beyond the library buildings. It will reaffirm the importance of research as a defining characteristic of the NLS, while striving to make access easier for all its users. It will contribute to education, learning and personal development, and so help to ensure the success of the nation as a whole. And it will continue to seek opportunities to engage with the wider public through exhibitions, events and other showcases.

Dr. Scally’s engaging and informative presentation, together with the reassurance of the library’s remarkable ability to assimilate new developments and re-invent itself, gave a positive outlook for the future of libraries. Good news for those of us who love being in these special spaces.

Report by Susan Horne, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh.

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