Libraries

Front page of The Bookseller, via @WeNeedLibraries

I just blindly retweeted the above image. I can’t claim I’ve read the actual article, or have some advanced knowledge or insight into the situation, but I thought it was worth doing a brief post on why libraries are so important to me.

Neil Gaiman has done a test at his readings, where he asks the assembled whether they discovered  their favourite book or their favourite author by buying in a bookshop. Understandably, few encounter the stuff they truly love this way. Many people get books handed to them by friends or relatives, or pirate it online to see if they like it, or, they pick it up off the library shelf, either at the recommendation of a great librarian, or at pure whim.

This is one of the great powers of a library. Since all the books in there are as free and accessible as any other, you have the luxury of choice. You’ve made no loss if you pick up a book and don’t like it, but might discover something that changes your life. We can take the fact that reading is vital as a given – they expand and inform your mind, and are vital to ourselves as individuals and therefore society. So anything that lowers the barrier of entry to getting a book, and expands the range of books that are available, is something that is clearly an incredible service.

The library service particularly beneficial to the young and vulnerable, the unemployed and the elderly, and those most in need of escape. It’s one of the great, egalitarian, socialist ideas – provide a room full of books, that are free to anyone who wants them. In fact, in a society that (wrongly) sees every service as a business, you could argue that libraries are a victim of their own success. A library in every city, town, and village, in every school and university – they even have them as buses now – there are probably too many libraries now, providing different services to different groups, which is great in a wealthy, expanding economy, but a liability now the entire service is under threat.

The problem isn’t the Internet (an international library of everything all at once), but that’s the tool that the problem is expressing itself through. Yes, you can get all sorts of things on the Internet far beyond what’s accessible through many libraries. And yes, Amazon provides the most popular books at a price that’s low enough to the monied classes to almost be free – or at least, cheap enough for the difference to be negligible. But the same could be said about supermarkets, or charity shops, or car boots.

The real problem is that we focus on the end product – getting the book we want to read – rather than the values behind our actions, or any particular service. It is true that buying a book gives an author royalties, but that is also true of many library services (in the UK and Ireland it’s the Public Lending Right), which pay for royalties out of the public purse. But really, there is no real need to own as many books as some of us do (particularly me), we just accumulate them like we do with all our stuff in a heavily capitalist economy – because we are taught to want it. Books are superior to other stuff, but it’s still true that maybe they’d be better sat somewhere everyone can get to them than in your own private stash.

This is really why I have such a laissez-faire attitude to lending my books around. Since so few of mine are truly expensive, and I only have a few collections that I like to keep as complete as possible (the Pratchetts and the Harry Potters and such), I encourage my family to walk in and take one if they want to read it, and hand them round friends and such, without any real restrictions on return. The only reasons for them to be returned are to settle my obsessive brain, that likes to know where things are, and so I can hand them around to someone else, or keep them for the time where I’ll want to. There are, of course, exceptions, favourites I want in my possession for the time I’ll inevitably need them again, but while I may remember that I lent Morrissey’s Autobiography to Will, there’s no real reason to demand it back before such a point where I discover a fan of The Smiths that I want to upset.

But since we’re all so focused on private ownership, or sharing privately amongst friends, we’ve lost sight of the importance of having a public pool of books that anybody can access. Those of us that don’t really need to use the library at the moment are allowing those who don’t see its value destroy it for the people that do.

The library I’m a member of, Wellesbourne, has had its opening hours cut to 20 hours a week – only four three-hour mornings and two four-hour afternoons. That means it’s been made inaccessible more often that it’s been available. Yes, it’s a village library of limited stock, but it’s a large village, and these are the libraries that matter the most. Those of limited mobility may not be able to make it into a larger library in Stratford or Leamington Spa, but they can order books from them at Wellesbourne through the magic of the inter-library loan. At the moment, the only way libraries such as Wellesbourne is headed is towards closure.

Wellesbourne Library obviously holds great sentimental value for me, because that’s where I got many of the books I read as a kid, was a safe space where I loved spending time, and is directly responsible for turning me into a person who’d write on his blog about libraries. But it’s not about sentimentality. The Internet’s great for having stuff on it, but it remains difficult to find the thing you want, and near impossible to find the thing you’d love but didn’t know existed. A good librarian will do that for you – she will see the books you’ve read, and hand you one you might like based on what you say, and often they’ll be right. But even the simple fact of having physical objects on display lowers the barrier of entry below what is possible for technology. Kids today are pretty much born computer literate, but books are still the ultimate expression of reading technology.

As I said in the intro, I have no solution to this problem. What I do know is that I’ll continue to get books (mainly comics through inter-library loan at the moment, to be fair) at Wellesbourne Library, and as soon as I have a fixed address I’ll sign up to my local library there, and use that. The simplest way to show you value a service is to use it, and I encourage everyone to show that the library system is loved, and that we will fight to keep it going.

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