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Are libraries out of date?

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Will Gompertz | 11:49 UK time, Friday, 26 November 2010

My home is cluttered with books, most of which I haven't touched since my original exploratory fumblings when they were still new, exciting and unknown.

Campfield, the first public library

Campfield, the first public library

I have, I admit, let the situation drift. Until recently, it was manageable - but now space is at a premium and something has to be done. In Austerity Britain, everything must earn its keep; contribute to the bottom line; provide value for money. All those square feet the books are taking up could be cleared up, enabling a small room to provide the basis for a new bed-and-breakfast business.

Then - and this is the sort of bonus you get when adopting a positive profit-and-loss mindset - in what is being touted as the coldest winter since the previous coldest winter, these displaced books could be bunged on the fire to keep down the ever-increasing gas bill.

If this thinking puts a smiley face on the Happiness Index of your local authority accountant, he or she will break into unrestrained laughter when contemplating the closure of loads of libraries.

A former library

A former library

The case for says that, like those former school sports fields, libraries take up lots of useful space, sitting there stuffed full of books that nobody reads. It is, some argue, a no-brainer.

The case against says that what might appear to be a no-brainer could lead to a society of no brains, where free and easy access to ideas, information and the imagination of others is removed like a frontal lobotomy.

It is preferable if lots of people use their local library, a subject discussed here in the summer, but it is not essential. What is essential, campaigners insist, is that libraries exist, even if only one person a year goes in, and that's for a chat with their brother who happens to be the librarian.

Libraries are totems of a society that prizes intellectual ambition, freedom of speech, ideas, knowledge and the human spirit. As for the public building that houses it - to its defenders, it is emblematic: a physical statement by the state to the community and to the world about the value of learning and the pursuit of knowledge.

For me, libraries are a public space - like a park - in which you may wander at will among trees of knowledge full of fruit banned in other countries.

Idea Store in Chrisp Street, London

Idea Store in Chrisp Street, London

My earlier post looked at those that have successfully turned themselves into fully-fledged knowledge centres with programmes of talks, courses, clubs and signings. It's another approach, which suggests investing more in public libraries and so might sound counter-intuitive in our cash-strapped times. And it only works with careful thought; perhaps it's not the concept of the public library that is out of date, rather the thinking behind how they are run.


  • Comment number 1.

    I've seen it in your eyes and I've read it in books.
    Who wants love without the looks?

  • Comment number 2.

    I've used my public library once in the past year... for the free loos contained inside. Scrap 'em now!

  • Comment number 3.

    Libraries are fine for the arty-farties who cluster in our cities and live in walking distance of a decent facility. Out here in the sticks we use the internet - which has far more of value then even the best of libraries.

  • Comment number 4.

    I am banned from all of my local libaries as when I was younger I loved reading and books so much I always forgot to bring them back.

    I love libraries but if you are like me and read books 4 times, its a lot of books.

  • Comment number 5.

    I think the internet and the coffee shop have largely made them redundant. There is value in having a large, multi-purpose, facility in each of teh main towns, but the smaller local branch libraries are now a luxury we can not afford.

    Technology in the form of eReaders will eventually become a viable alternative to the physical library.

  • Comment number 6.

    I'm with you. I don't want books I'll only read once or browse once in a while cluttering up the place (the same goes for CDs, btw - think of all those plastic jewel boxes that never get opened again after the first 6 weeks). For the past two years I've used the library. I've just come from there, in fact. It was full of borrowers, web users, and browsers - contrary to reported trend, our council has reported an increase in library visits in the last five years.

    I'm fortunate to live in a relatively affluent part of the country, and probably where standard education of residents is relatively high, so the library is well used and the service good. Ironically it's those areas where libraries are neglected and in danger of closing from cuts supported by public disinterest that probably need the service more than we do. But you can lead a horse to water but you can't persuade a mule to read.

    The same goes for CDs, btw.

  • Comment number 7.

    I grew up in the 1960's in the US and have lived in Denmark for over 30 years. I adore libraries,which for me are the equivalent of parks for learning. I have great libraries in Copenhagen and have books borrowed from many libraries at once. We have a national library system which enables one to order books from other libraries and return them at many different local libraries. In the Copenhagen Community Library System, there are about 5 different libraries close to where I live that all have different personalities and opening hours and during the winter, there are 2 of these open on Sunday. One of the libraries has a cafe and all have toys and children's activities. We all love our libraries here.
    I know that a lot of children from low-income immigrant families spend a lot of time at the library, sometimes using the free computers. I go to get help on the computer but also to get other kinds of information. I also use the Royal Library and the University Libraries, which are a different system from the local ones.
    Whenever I have been lucky enough to travel on a long-term trip, I always get a library card which is my dearest souvenir. And I love being able to spend quiet hours reading at libraries. I like being able to share books and be in a quiet environment.
    So I also have to say that I appreciate librarians and the other people who keep the books and the users of the library in place. I think that it is nice to have places where knowledge is free and there is no muzak. I adore libraries!

  • Comment number 8.

    Until recently I worked in a library in a relatively rural part of the country - and I don't remember there ever being a quiet time! There were always people browsing books, working, using the internet, asking all kinds of questions... What sticks in my mind the most, though, are the services libraries provide - the mobile van that would tour the county throughout the week, taking books and audio books to those who couldn't get to towns, the inter library loan services (for anyone, not just students), and (music was my specialist area) providing scores, orchestral and choir sets, play sets etc for the huge amount of amateur groups around the county (most of the sets came from outside the county - without the library service, many of these groups wouldn't exist as the cost of score and script hire would be prohibitive). I loved my work (how often can you say that?!), and more so the opportunity to support and promote the arts throughout the county, particularly supporting those who were only just deciding to start learning music (whatever their age) - helping them to choose suitable music and encouraging them in their studies. The same goes for any subject you wish to learn - the service is there free for everyone - and it always helps to have someone to ask for advice.

    A lot of my work focused on informing people how their library could help them - once people knew exactly how much there was available there they were usually pleasantly surprised.

    Yes, we did get some people who used the library only for the free loos, but they are thankfully outnumbered by those who enjoy the many services libraries can still provide.

  • Comment number 9.

    Well, I suppose if everyone had the internet we could get rid of the libraries and have all of the library books available online.

    this would work in terms of:

    -being able to sell the buildings/land
    -only having to employ a fraction of the staff to work on the website.
    -the site would be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
    -every book would always be available
    -just think of the paper we waste in making so many books, which then sit unused.
    - some of the money saved could go towards a better 'mobile library' service, as they would still be needed for the elderly and disabled.

    schools, colleges & universities also have libraries, which would be better off with 24 hour internet access. but of course, not everyone does have internet access and a lot of the elderly are not computer literate. So, in a few years I think this will be a very viable option, but not at the moment.

  • Comment number 10.

    Nos 2 and 3 - not everyone has Internet access or can afford to buy books.

  • Comment number 11.

    Ah, numbers 2 and 3 allow me to paraphrase for both of you.

    "I'm a bit of a fick yobbo wot don't like people getting above their station and wants to stop this thinkin' stuff. How dare people aspire to more than the Sun for tellin' 'em wot their opinins should be."

  • Comment number 12.

    Libraries are a repository of collective knowledge and imagination. Are they being supplanted by the Internet? Hardly.

    It's true that there's now a vast amount of information available on the web; but if you want real in-depth information then you reach for a book. I see the web as providing quick-bytes of information (Wikipedia etc), but for a full meal you have to seek out a book - or a specialist magazine.

    Far from the Internet killing off printed material as once predicted, the traditional printed medium still appears to be thriving, as a look at variety of magazines in a WH Smith's demonstrates.

    The libraries in my city are all well used and all offer Internet access, a facility that is popular; not everyone can afford to have it in their home.

    The library's reference section is also well used, not least by young college students. There are still those that see education as being of value in advancing their careers. Others value gaining knowledge for it's own sake and in self-education. My local library is well used, not least by families with young children; for those on a tight budget they are invaluable.

    The local history and archives section of my city's library service is also well supported; many people are interested in family history and the history of their towns and cities.

    The Internet allows much of this information to be digitised and put on the web (or the public to contribute scans of pictures etc to groups on Flickr etc) but many people are still not that skilled in using the Internet; they find it intimidating, complex etc and prefer having a librarian help them find the information they want.

    Some people will remain technophobes and resistant to using the Internet. Some will always find technology difficult; we don't all share the same aptitudes for everything. A surprising number of young people are computer illiterate. This isn't a problem that will disappear.

    Statistics may show a decline in library goers (although these are not accurate reflections of how the service is utilised), but figures also show a 49% increase in the usage of library websites. Libraries are not declining in importance - people are changing the way they use them.

    Many libraries are now digitising their archived materials - the Internet is another way they can make information available; but you still need a library service in order to provide this facility.

    Some of us still have inquisitive minds and read widely; I mainly read non fiction and have found the inter-library loan service invaluable it getting hold of books on obscure subjects - on occasion from university libraries or even from The British Library in London. Some of us still read widely (I rarely watch TV) and simply couldn't afford the amount of books we get though each year.

    Most of the films I watch nowadays are on DVD's borrowed from my library and the music section allows me to try CD's that I otherwise wouldn't try.

    Libraries are indicators of a society that values knowledge and aims to promote an educated, literate society. Dispense with them and it is a sign that we wish to consign ourselves to the status of a third world country and devalue the knowledge and literacy of our citizens. Libraries are an indicator of how we see ourselves as a society and of our ambitions.

    Dispense with local libraries and you are throwing away collections of books they have taken decades to build up. It's similar to the damage done by a fire, once they have gone it is no easy (or affordable) matter to build a similar collection again in the future. If the library service is cut, we also run the risk of having an ill-informed society, ill-equipped to prosper in an 'information age'.

    Look back at past great civilisations (Greek, Roman and earlier) and one factor they all shared at their height was the investments they made in knowledge, scholarship and learning. Often the loss of their libraries, though acts of war or accidental fires, also signified the start of their decline. Closing our libraries as a cost cutting measure would be an immensely short-sighted act and one that would significantly damage our society.

    PS. Some libraries now lend out e-books too (the digital book automatically deletes itself from their e-reader after 14 days.)

  • Comment number 13.

    I have a Kindle and absolutely love it. However, there is a lot more to libraries than mere books. While my book selections now tend to be more based around reference books I do also use my local library for music.

  • Comment number 14.

    Are libraries repositories of knowledge and learning, really, nowadays? Ours is like an internet cafe (but -so far - without the drinks), full of people playing games, on Facebook or men (usually) looking at women on dating web sites. Why should our council tax be used to provide this mindless entertainment?
    If this is what our libraries have become then they deserve to be closed.

  • Comment number 15.

    I regularly borrow poetry books from my two local libraries. I challenge myself by borrowing books I might find boring or difficult, books I would never have bought. If libraries didn't exist, there are many poets (old and new) I would not have discovered. Paying for literature makes you a conservative shopper, you don't want to waste £8 on a book you won't like so you only buy the tried and tested. This makes it harder for new writers to get into the market. I have gone on to buy books (and attend workshops) by the poets I discovered for free, so in the end writers and publishers benefit.

  • Comment number 16.

    An interesting thing about libraries. Over the past 20 years they have changed from being very quiet places to very noisy places. Personally, I prefer silence. Sshhh!!! But the racket that is generated by the book groups, Scrabble groups, people chatting, childrens' play area (what's that about?), shouts out the fact that the library is in use. Without that infernal, annoying, constant noise the library would, nowadays, be a dead, empty place. In another two years? three years? four years? another part of the glue that keeps together our precariously civilised society would be gone.

  • Comment number 17.

    On reading some of your replies. Have any of you thought the the millions of people who cant afford to buy books much less a kindle? I cant. I have been going to the Library for 58 years. I love it. Have learned a lot with reading and travelling. I am definitely not arty farty either. Grew up in childrens homes, was homeless for a while. Drug addict, Alcoholic, worked for a long time after I was clean and sober for the homeless team. Actually worked on the streets when I was a drunk. Comments like that I find ignorant. Books are for everybody. My favourites. All quiet on the Western Front, The Good Earth, Wuthering Heights, A thousand splendid suns to name a few I have at home. All of Primo Levi.


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