Libraries serve two main functions. The first is access to knowledge. It’s what Toni Morrison called “the superb, the supreme act of truly great civilizations” and I agree. I’d even go further and say this: unless every member of your population has free and complete access to knowledge, you are not a civilization at all.
And let’s be broad about ‘knowledge’. Let’s include all the stuff that might not look like ‘knowledge’ from the front cover: comics, celebrity autobiographies, novels and the like. (Though it does make me wonder what knowledge anybody could acquire from my own books, apart from ‘everybody is out to get you’ and ‘how to abseil down a skyscraper using just the internal mechanism of a laptop’.)
The second main function of a library is to provide a public space where people can study, sit, be, read, learn, shelter... pretty much anything as long as they’re quiet about it and keep their clothes on.
Now, I know that there are many, many more things that modern libraries offer. I’ve been involved in some brilliant schemes run by absolutely inspiring librarians (who are usually working with impossibly small budgets). However, to keep things simple for the time being, I hope you don’t mind if I lump all those wonderful, creative endeavours together with ‘access to knowledge’. In other words, it all falls under the first function of libraries.
But it does show that there are more innovative ways to give a person access to knowledge than just pointing them towards the right book.
And that’s what I want to talk about.
I want to split the two functions of libraries. There’s no inherent reason why they have to come together. Knowledge doesn’t have to reside in large buildings full of books. That was just the best way of delivering it when public libraries first came into existence.
Isn’t there now a better way of giving everybody access to all the knowledge in the world than by cramming as many books as we can into huge buildings? For a moment, try to forget all of your nostalgia about libraries as they are and as they once were. And just for a moment, put aside any attachments you might have to physical books.
Simply ask yourself this: if you were trying to design a system that delivered the entirety of printed knowledge to every person in the country, how would you do it? Surely you wouldn’t present me with a plan to build huge depositories for paper books and place these buildings around the country.
We have a better way of delivering information and we should be using it.
Please don’t jump to the conclusion that I support the government’s plans to close libraries and hack to pieces all the services that libraries should be offering. Of course I don’t. It’s barbaric and short-sighted. But only because they’re not replacing it with anything.
Up to now the opposition to the government has focussed on rallying people to borrow books and say what libraries ‘mean’ to them. Well, I don’t think that’s helpful either. I don’t want to join the collective moan to ‘save libraries’. It’s such a vague and unhelpful phrase that it’s almost meaningless. It spreads round the internet, recruiting people to the cause, but without any discussion of the functions of a library or any serious, practical solutions for continuing library services when, apparently, there is no money to do so.
I don’t just want to see library services continue, I want to improve the whole system.
Digitise everything. Google’s already doing it, so why don’t we turn something that feels slightly sinister into something wonderful? Deliver access to knowledge through digitisation and the internet. Some councils already offer online access to various reference books through library membership. Why not expand that to cover every book? (As far as I know, one council has been trialling it already, but only one.)
Yes, there are implications. Google has been digitising everything while seeming not to worry about little things like copyright. I’m not suggesting that. All we need to do is extend Public Lending Right to cover electronic lending. PLR is the payment of about 6p that authors receive each time one of our books is borrowed from a public library, but at the moment PLR doesn’t apply to electronic lending. Doesn’t this seem backward? It’s symptomatic of the lack of coordination of library services at a national level.
Everything you need to read could be provided to you for free online or on an e-reader by your national, electronic library service.
By the way, at the moment PLR is capped at £6,600 a year for each author. If everybody is getting their books by ‘borrowing’ them electronically for free then we need to have another look at that, otherwise nobody will be able to afford to write any new books.
For the economics to work we need people round a table who represent the government, Google, publishers, libraries and the Society of Authors. But I’m convinced it could work spectacularly. Don’t forget, we already have a system for national distribution of knowledge that’s free at the point of delivery, but in a different medium: TV.
What about people who don’t have internet access? That’s a problem we should be working to solve anyway, regardless of what happens to libraries. And don’t forget that at the moment libraries demand you access them physically, which is, I’d suggest, much tougher for many more people. (I’m confident that over the coming decades the proportion of people who can use the internet independently will rise. I’m less certain about the proportion of people who are independently mobile. Very soon we will have a very old population, all of whom are confident internet users.)
You don’t have an e-reader? OK, let’s work on distributing those. Every child should have one instead of a library ticket. Think that sounds crazy and expensive? One: it sounds better to me than schemes like Bookstart, which in theory distributed a free book to every child in the country. Two: in the long run, e-readers would be cheaper than the constant stocking and restocking of school libraries.
Put the library into the child’s hands.
Don’t forget, people at school see libraries very differently. If you grew up with the library as the best, or only, source of printed knowledge, a library feels like a place of wonderful riches. If you grew up with the internet, a library serves to ghetto-ise books. It keeps knowledge locked up.
I think this is especially true of libraries in secondary schools. At primary school, there are books in every classroom and quite often they line the corridor too. Books are everywhere. Sometimes this is a necessity of not being able to afford a dedicated library space, but I think it’s no bad thing if you’re never further than two metres from a book.
As soon as a kid reaches secondary school, the books are all locked away in a separate building. Librarians go to great lengths and do fantastic, imaginative things just to get kids to go into the library. They shouldn’t have to do this, but they do. Because for a lot of people – I would say most young people – libraries are intimidating. E-readers are not. Libraries are also the last place most teenagers want to be seen. E-readers take books out of the ghetto and into your child’s school bag.
So what about the second function of libraries – the public space? Well, if these public spaces no longer need to house every book people might want, then it’s a much easier, and cheaper, function to fulfil. How about more, smaller study spaces spread further across the country than the current library network? I’d like to see small, quiet study spaces tucked away on every high street, in every village, above shops and pubs, even stations and service stations: easier to staff, easier to run, easier to stock.
Of course, we’ll still need librarians. Who else can provide the advice and support – especially when it comes to books for children? But my experience of working with librarians in the current system is that their expertise is wasted. They are, in overwhelming numbers, inspiring people with brilliant minds, vast knowledge, explosive enthusiasm and a constant flow of ideas. And these talents are put to use a tiny percentage of the time.
If they’re freed from the antiquated admin that goes into running an old-fashioned bricks-and-books library they could create magic. They should be driving the whole system: websites and forums, drop-in events, consultations, community schemes... all the things they strive to do at the moment, and more.
Libraries are people – not books, and not buildings.
By calling out to ‘save libraries’ as they are, (which in practice usually translates to ‘as they were’ or even ‘as I falsely remember them from my sepia-tinted, idyllic youth’) we are blocking the path to a truly wonderful library service – a universal knowledge delivery system that would actually work.
It won’t need more money. In the long run this will be cheaper. Yes, cheaper. Better and cheaper.
But it will take time and, most importantly, creative thought. That may well be too much to expect from any government, but the rest of us?
Most of the petitions, articles or facebook pleas to ‘save libraries’ that I see are distributed by authors. Some high-profile authors have been making speeches, writing in the papers or both. Well, fellow author, as far as I’m concerned you are guilty of a shameful lack of imagination.
Why stamp our feet and throw a tantrum to save a Victorian system? Let’s put our creative energy into re-inventing the whole concept of a library. Less money? So what. I say less money can mean more reading, more knowledge, wider access. Let’s make something better.
Saturday 5th has become a national day of protest to support libraries. Please do support your library. Go to a reading, borrow a book. But while you’re there please also open your mind and think creatively about how the two functions of a library could be performed in the future.