On the one hand they need to justify their existence beyond merely a source of free books for the unemployed, underemployed, pensioners, and children or people who simply think books don’t justify spending any money on at all. They represent the dream of universal access to literature and information, and in doing so, it is hoped, act as a civilising influence, making people better. They’re a badge that say, “Look at us! We’re enlightened!”
On the other hand, libraries also have to be a bit crap. A limited selection, grubby tattered books, rationing. They need to leave enough people willing to buy their own books so that publishers continue to publish books and writers continue to write. If everyone used the library exclusively, they would quickly become little more than museums commemorating a long dead publishing industry.
If I were the sort of person that didn’t care about taxing the arse off people or the consequences of doing so, and wanted to reinvent the whole concept of “free” access to information for the 21st Century, I’d close all the libraries down and hand out a free e-Reader and simply invoice the taxpayer for every single book downloaded. Luckily I’m not, yet even with this, even with all of publishing at their fingertips, I would be amazed if there wasn’t at least 20% of people that didn’t download even one single book.
I would also expect that, despite giving every person in the country free access to pretty much all of ‘publishing’ people would still complain about closing the libraries, as if it’s not the knowledge or literature that matters but the actual physical books themselves, or the ‘social’ effect of simply having such churches to the written word being public spaces.
The point is that books are very slowly, and reluctantly, heading towards obsolescence. It’s inevitable. The economics of digital distribution are too overwhelmingly against dead tree publishing, the environmental argument too compelling. In terms of accessibility, electronic book readers allow readers to set their own font sizes, their own colour scheme. Electronically stored books have the power to be read aloud or reproduced as Braille for the blind. Books out of copyright can be downloaded for free, current books can be downloaded for a few pounds. This is the future! Rejoice!
Sure, we fetishise the book – the act of turning pages, the feel of the paper, the smell of the pages, but books – as mode of data transport – have had their day. I’m a die-hard technophile and even I still understand the appeal of real books, but I feel my resolve on this fading. What about people ten years younger? Twenty years? Those who’ve just been born?
It stands to reason that the fate of libraries is tied up with that of books and, likewise, are going to fade in cultural importance. With every decade that passes, as more and more of us expect to get our literature and information from or via the Internet, the political question of “universal access to the tools of one’s own liberation” is going to be less about making sure there’s a pile of free books for people to borrow, but identifying what barriers, if any, stand in the way of getting everyone access to the incomprehensibly large source of information that we call “The Internet”.
I see non-fiction, reference libraries becoming something you’ll find only in Schools and Universities where they’ve got a practical use which morphs into historical interest, but increasingly this will be replaced with digital technology for the most up to date information and publications. I see most Public libraries closing or consolidating into regional museums, being replaced with ‘children’s libraries’ at first that are managed by education authorities and serve more as a free childcare service than being the primary source of reading material for kids. Eventually these too will close.
I see travelling libraries, in lorries, continuing to run for another few decades by councils until eventually they’re taken over by charities run by and for those with a sentimental attachment to books as a physical thing.
But I still think, even if laptops cost £20 and the internet was free (as in beer), you’d still get people who didn’t bother, who’d think even £20 is far too much money for access to all human knowledge and the ability to communicate with everyone else. Waste of good beer money. Give it to them for free and it’ll sit, unused, languishing in a cupboard, just some more rubbish from the Nanny State to ignore.
In a free society, people can – and do – choose ignorance. Libraries don’t even begin to address this problem (if you regard being able to decide for yourself a problem, of course), so when people demand I help save the libraries I say, “Do I have to?”.
It feels like a sentimental obligation towards tradition and the pretence of what a post-enlightenment society should be like than any considered answer to the very real questions posed by declining collective (or average) education levels (or, put less tactfully, intelligence) compared with other nations, and the devastating consequences that will have on Britain economically.
If we’re not the best, we need to be cheap. We’re neither.
Public libraries are the answer to one problem: “How do we guarantee that people who want to read books, but don’t have enough money to buy books, get access to books?” How long, really, will this be a pressing concern in a society where books cease to be the primary means of communicating information and literature?
Face it: The call to “save the libraries” may not be the right answer. Perhaps, really, we should start thinking about what the question is.