What are libraries for, anyway?

I find it hard to resist a library, even one I’m not a member of – they might have a particularly inspiring reading room, some fabulous old books to flick through, or even (whisper this when OneMonkey isn’t listening) a couple of shelves they’re selling off for 20p a paperback. Love books, love libraries – that’s the way it goes. Or so I always thought. Lately, though, I seem to have read articles, listened to radio programmes, filled in council surveys and signed petitions that imply a strenuous defence of libraries is underway. How sad that we need to defend libraries. And that reading seems to have become synonymous (in the media at least) with buying books.

Last week OneMonkey drew my attention to this Forbes article: Close the libraries and buy everyone an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription. The author points out he’s not being wholly serious, but unfortunately policy-makers might skim over that sentence in the rush to implement his ideas as they try to pacify some of the people they’ve riled by closing down so many libraries (The Librarian, for instance, now in a precarious employment situation as well as having her principles trampled on). The idea being that it would be nearly as cheap to pay for a subscription to one company’s currently available ebook list as it would to fund libraries in their current form. And libraries are only about reading books, aren’t they?

Despite more years at university than any sane person would submit to, I’ve had a couple of fairly long stints of unemployment. As I’m sure is the case for many other people who are time-rich and cash-poor (pensioners, for instance), local libraries were invaluable during those times, even when they were only open a few half-days a week. Particularly when I was 21 and skint, buying more than the occasional second-hand book was out of the question, so obviously the local library supplied my reading material but that wasn’t the whole story. There were newspapers and magazines for information, entertainment and job adverts. There was a heated reading room that saved me having to run up a heating bill at home (or have the lights on through a winter afternoon), computers with printers and free internet access.

Going to the library can give you a routine, a reason to leave the house, someone to speak to (of course the Post Office used to do that as well, but they’ve closed most of them down already). They host story time, reading groups, family history workshops, activities to get older children reading a bit over the long summer holiday. They provide council services, from extra garden waste bags to housing advice. Our local GP sends people along the road to the library to access a Reading Well shelf, full of books on how to stop smoking, conquer panic attacks and the like. Oh but those are books again, you could just get those on the Kindle. Assuming they stocked them, and weren’t having a dispute with the publisher at the time.

Leaving aside the fast pace of technology rendering all this investment obsolete in a few years (and who’s buying the hardware, anyway?) and the lack of provision for the poor and the lonely this new arrangement would bring about, what about the serendipity of libraries? Old or locally-relevant curiosities, yes, but also I defy anyone to be as truly random in picking a book online as they can be in a library. You turned left instead of right at the photocopier and you’re in an aisle you didn’t mean to go down, then a book title catches your eye and grabs your interest. I can’t be the only person that happens to, nor can I be the only person who picks up books because of the font, the colours, or because the author with a name nearby in the alphabet wasn’t available. Everyone needs a bit of randomness in their life, and a book you can take home for free is probably one of the least dangerous ways you can get it.

Libraries are important, as repositories of knowledge and champions of ideas, the stirrers of young imaginations, and I don’t know what else. Love learning, love libraries? Love communities, love libraries? The idea of what libraries are for is just as vague (but just as important to think about, and get right) as the idea of what universities are for. And you don’t want to get me started on that.

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