We’ve blogged several items recently about the cuts to library services in North Yorkshire, and in particular about how we might keep our town library in business with volunteer labour. But is that really necessary or even desirable?
Keep our library! Knowledge is good, pleasure is good, books give you both, so books are good. Libraries have books, so libraries are good. And must therefore remain in business.
All of a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, isn’t it? Let’s look at what libraries actually provide and consider how much we need those services, given that the funds used to provide them will therefore not be available for other services.
Libraries are primarily repositories for books, which are available for reference in house, or to take out on free loan. We’ll get back to this point later. In addition, local libraries like ours have diversified in recent years, and now offer other services and benefits. The following have been suggested as reasons for keeping our library in business.
- Encouraging children to read. Excuse me, but what are schools for? And parents?
- Providing a warm safe place for hard-up lonely old people to meet, read the newspaper and chat. Leaving aside the question of silence in the library, which I was brought up with, we would do better to ask why old people are lonely and poor, and do something about it, rather than providing a sticking plaster. Or if you want a sticking plaster, use volunteer labour to man a café with cheap drinks and free newspapers. Then the clients could chat without disturbing anybody.
- Providing computer access and tuition. Yes, a useful contribution to social inclusion, but it doesn’t require a roomful of books. Extend the café facilities.
- Offering DVDs and music CDs on loan. Hardly necessary in these days of download overload.
- Providing local information, leaflets, parking permits, etc. Off to the café with all this. Or the post office.
- Meeting rooms? Memorial Hall, Moorside Room. How many meeting rooms does one town need?
And so to the vital question: is there any longer a need for a town-based store of books publicly available for reference or free loan?
If you are ‘computerate’, and have equipment (as you must be, to be reading this), you know that there is a wealth of information at your fingertips on the web. If you are writing the definitive history of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, or the moon landing, you might not find on line the original sources that you need, but you wouldn’t find them in KMS library either. And for most ordinary reference enquitires, the internet is quicker, broader, and doesn’t involve going out in the rain. As for reading for pleasure, books can be downloaded for very little money. Project Gutenberg offers over 49,000 (yes, forty nine thousand) free ebooks, and Kindle has frequent offers at 99p. OK, they may not be this week’s best seller, but do you get that from the library without waiting in a queue?
But what if you aren’t computerate, or want this week’s best seller? A new paperback might cost you eight or nine pounds. Compare that to a packet of cigarettes, a couple of pints of beer, six litres of petrol, and it doesn’t seem like a lot. Charity shops offer books for very little, friends swap them for free. And yes, there are people for whom this small outlay is beyond their means, but we should not be tackling this level of deprivation with patronising little gestures like a book on free loan.
Reading is a force for good, but it no longer needs to be tied to the printed word.
When printing was invented, did scholars rejoice? No, they did not. Back in the fourteenth century, they feared that access to the printed word would stop rote learning, which was the only way really to know and understand a work. If you could just look it up, where was the learning in that?
By analogy, we are here at another great tipping point in the availability of literature, information, and yes, dross. Older folk – I’m one – love the smell, feel, and reliability of the printed word, but it is in decline, and rightly so. Today’s children, brought up with computers, will consider print as out dated as parchment.
So don’t be a Luddite, face the future, acknowledge change, and say good bye to the local library, which was wonderful in its day, but that day is now over.