Library heresy

Not your typical library
(John Rylands Library, Manchester)
Libraries are a touchy subjects amongst us authors, especially at a time when they are endangered. We love our libraries and anyone who suggests closing them risks an authorial tarring and feathering.

Yet there comes a point with any technology and distribution method where there's a danger of clinging onto the past because it's what we grew up with, even if it's not right for the future. And I'm seriously wondering if the time has come to take the same attitude to libraries. Are we like the people who tried to cling on to gas lighting when it was obvious electricity was the way forward?

Let's start with the good things about libraries, particularly for authors:

  • Those who use libraries also buy more books than the average person - or so conventional wisdom has it. I haven't been able to find any good research to this effect (please let me know if you can point me to it). The closest I have come is this which is a) 3 years old, b) US, c) is a survey, not controlled research, d) says that library users buy on average 3.2 books a month but doesn't put it in context.
  • In countries like the UK authors get a payment called PLR to compensate for library lending (other countries like the US don't).
  • Libraries make books available to those who can't afford to buy them.
  • Libraries are useful places for research/working quietly.
  • Mobile libraries are a useful lifeline for old people in remote locations.
On the downside:
  • Fewer and fewer people use libraries.
  • Libraries are not always convenient to get to.
  • Libraries have become too 'everything for everyone' - they seem to have more other things than books these days.
  • Libraries don't have the impact they used to.
  • The majority of library users who borrow books only borrow fiction. Libraries are more about entertainment than education.
I really think we ought to start from scratch. To say what we want libraries to do, and how they can best address those needs. It's highly likely that the current library structure is not the answer to addressing those needs. I am not saying we just get rid of libraries, but rather we see if a structure that was designed for a Victorian need could not be re-worked for the twenty-first century.

This would be a task that would take a working group some time, so there's no way I can reproduce the effort required in a blog post. But here's a few of the kind of things I would consider. Amongst the needs:
  • Giving people access to books and getting them used to owning and buying books.
  • Giving people access to information.
  • Giving people somewhere quiet to study and access the internet.
  • Giving old people in remote locations a focal point and access to books.
At the moment spending on public libraries in the UK is about £1 billion (see this report). The temptation is always to cut this, especially where local authorities are squeezed and able to do so. This money should be spent effectively, and where possible there should be multiple use facilities, so that there isn't a double spend on infrastructure.

A few thoughts on these. £1 billion sounds a lot, but that's only around £17 per head. So we can't issue everyone with £100 of book tokens each year, much though I would love to. But I do think some of the budget should go to giving people a way to buy books at a discounted rate, because book buying gives the books a much greater personal value than just borrowing - ownership is powerful psychologically. 

Looking beyond access to books, increasingly, the traditional library building may not the best way to provide most of the needs. Perhaps we should get rid of our general purpose library buildings, keeping only specialists like the John Rylands above, re-investing the cash in library services, and finding ways to provide books more directly, plus giving access for information/study needs via other buildings (schools and universities spring to mind, but there are many other opportunities).

The worst possibility, though, is what we have at the moment - trying to prop up the Victorian system as funds reduce and not looking at ways to genuinely transform the library concept. 

I honestly think if the right people could be persuaded to take a step back and look creatively at the problem they could come up with something much better, yet not requiring vast amounts of extra funding. Don't we owe that to the public?


  1. Your comment '[T]hose who use libraries also buy more books than the average person - or so conventional wisdom has it' touches a nerve with me. Mrs Crox is a librarian/learning mentor at our local high school and finds that very few children borrow books, or even read books. They come from homes where books are rare or absent, and where reading, if considered at all, is regarded as something people did at school and give up when they leave it, which they do as soon as possible. Libraries in my experience try very hard to promote reading - our library has regular school-holiday reading challenges with awards presented in one case by our local MP - and they have story-time activities for younger children. So in your projected over-arching review of the function of public libraries, I'd include some serious studies on how children (in particular) can be introduced to the pleasures of reading such that they keep it up into adulthood.

    1. Very important to do that, Henry, I agree.


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