STONE the Crows! No wonder the Brits are broke, cuts to even peripheral public sector spending are generating outrage. British councils are responding to budget reductions by committing to closing local libraries.[i] And literary types are angry, “the assault on Britain’s public libraries is a thoughtless cultural crime whose after affects will linger for decades,” warns Robert McCrumb. [ii]
Perhaps even as upset as they are with a plan to reduce the 6p the government pays an author whenever a book is borrowed from a library. [iii]
As special interest pleaders generally do when their own subsidy is threatened, supporters of public libraries claim they are a fundamental right. “Public libraries are a democratic entitlement for every individual, for every community and for the whole nation,” Margaret Hodge, minister for culture (and tourism) wrote in the dying days of the Brown Government. [iv]
You would think the coalition government was planning book burnings rather than shutting down some, not all, libraries. And, as usual, opponents of change argue anything that ends the public paying for things most voters do not want is an attack on truth and beauty. In this case library cuts are presented as a cultural crisis, as if making it harder to borrow George Eliot and equivalent from the library is a serious situation.
It is all nonsense. For a start, nobody much has wanted to read Middlemarch for 80 years. In the middle 1930s, George Orwell said selling the canon was all but impossible in the London bookshop/lending library where he once worked and where “you see people’s real tastes, not their pretended ones, and one thing that strikes you is how completely the ‘classical’ English novelists have dropped out of favour.”[v]
In any case, anybody who does want to read George Eliot can download her works to Kindle or equivalent for free, or buy a paperback for a couple of quid.
The old electronic media, and now the online world, mean recreational reading has long lost its monopoly on passive entertainment and library use in England is declining. Loans of books for adults dropped by a third between 1992 and 2009 and children’s loans are down over the last decade. [vi]
But this does not change the arguments against the cuts. Support for the status quo comes from users who like the free service, from the system’s other clients, the authors and librarians whom it pays. It comes from predictable conservatives who think libraries are sacred sites where efficiency is irrelevant. Which it is. A US company says it could run British libraries for a third less. [vii]
Rather than address the obvious question – whether libraries are the most cost-effective way of providing information and entertainment in written form – defenders of the library turn the argument from utility to morality. A couple of weeks ago, there were protests at the University of Sydney. The university wants to cull unread books from the stacks, books which are, or can be, made available online at a fraction of the storage cost. Burning the great library of Alexandria it is not, but Sydney staff and students are upset.[viii]
To which the Crows just caw. The idea that books must exist as printed documents makes as much sense as the Lancashire Textile Council’s complaints about the spinning jenny in 1764 (alright the Crows made the council up, but you get the idea).
And it makes as much sense as the way the music industry ignored the digital revolution, which worked until tens of millions of computer users ignored it. Been into a record store lately?
Books, plus the people who sell and loan them, can go the same way. Amazon now sells more ebooks than it does paperbacks. [ix] The ebook share of US publishing sales will likely double, to 13 per cent, in the next two years. It’s a trend set to soar, with sales of ebook readers around the world expected to triple to 30 million units per annum between now and 2014. Understandably so, ebook prices are 40 per cent lower than the print product. [x]
Whether library workers like it or not, buildings full of books, and the people who manage them, no longer control access to ideas and information. The future for some staff could be providing access to ebooks – maybe even loaning ebook readers to people who cannot afford their ever dropping price.
This could be good for the very readers that supporters of English libraries say they want to help. While the Crows never underestimate the ability of people to make work where no necessary task exists, a library service without expensive real estate and where staff are not needed to shelve books has got to be cheaper to run, leaving a bigger share of the budget to spend on electronic books.
Even UK allies of the old system know it:
E-books will enable library services to remain relevant in a market where people are using mobile devices to access information and entertainment and will provide a new opportunity to reach people who may not visit their local library building regularly.[xi]
Of course this begs the question, why the state should provide universal access to free recreational reading at all. The Brits charge for the BBC and people used to pay to borrow books, like they rent videos now. Local lending libraries were small businesses for half of the last century. [xii]
Sure there are people who do not enjoy recreational reading on digital devices but they will get used to it – just like people who liked homespun broadcloth adjusted to the higher quality and lower price of mill—made cotton in the 18th century.
Want to read more about the future of government supplied reading? Investigate it online – it’s London to a brick there’s more information there than in your public library.
[i] Tim Rayment, “US offer to save libraries from closure,” Sunday Times, February 6
[ii] Robert McCrum, Libraries are in crisis, but literary culture is thriving,” The Guardian, May 12
[iii] Alison Flood, “Authors join forces to defend public lending right,” The Guardian August 26, 2010
[iv] Department of Culture, Media and Support, “The modernisation review of public libraries: a policy statement” (HMG, 2010) @ webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk
recovered on May 15
[v] George Orwell, “Bookshop Memories”
@ www.k-1.com/Orwell/site/work/essays/bookshop.html recovered on May 21
[vi] Department of Culture, Modernisation Review, op cit 20. In contrast, total public library loans in Australia increased from 176.4 million in 2004-05 to 182.6 million in 2008-09, State Library of Queensland, Australian Public Libraries, Statistical Report 2008-2009 (2010) @ www.nsla.org.au/publications/statistics/2010/pdf/NSLA.Statistics-20101203-Australian.Public.Library.Statistics..2008.2009.pdf recovered on May 22
[vii] Rayment, ibid
[viii] Yuko Narushima, “You can judge a book by its ‘dust test’ as university library cuts its staff and stock,” Sydney Morning Herald, May 12
[xi] Department of Culture, Modernisation Review, op cit 42
[xii] John Arnold, “ ‘Choose your author as you would choose a friend’: circulating libraries in Melbourne 1930-1960” The LaTrobe Journal 40 (Spring 1987) 77-96 @ www.slv.vic.gov.au/latrobejournal recovered on May 21