Tuesday, 3 August 2010

What are libraries for?

At Touching From a Distance (now incorporated into The Spectator), guest poster Prof David McMenemy offers various arguments for the importance of public libraries. At least, he talks a lot about ‘learning spaces’ and ‘vital cogs in the wheels of societal development’ and says things like "in a digital world where publishers can put up paywalls at the click of a mouse, our collective ability to facilitate access to knowledge for our fellow citizens has become even more important." In the comments, Simon suggests that the gap can be plugged by dishing out iPads, which is very 21st Century I suppose.

All of which theorising fails to address the reality of what public libraries are for. Have you had this discussion? Do you find that nearly everyone you know thinks they’re outmoded now that we have Wikipedia and Amazon selling great books for 1p?

Me too, but then I discovered the startling fact that in Britain more books are borrowed from public libraries every year than are sold in all shops.

The top ten authors are here, and their identities tell you all you need to know about how the above startling fact can be. Public libraries are used enormously, but almost entirely by OAPs and parents of young children, two of the least fashionable and most blog-ignored groups in society.

I suggest that the debate about public libraries should therefore start by looking at the needs of these actual library users, rather than with academic theories about learning spaces or the potential of the latest Apple products.


  1. We - and our nursery - regularly use the local library for our two little boys. I can't imagine how it might be usefully replaced like-for-like. And I'd love to see what my youngest would do with an iPad (though not mine). On current form, he'd probably water it, chew it, use it to execute some snails before burying it in sand.

    I used a library a lot twenty years ago when I had no money and wanted to read as much Russian literature as I could. I don't see why I wouldn't use one again if I were in the same situation today.

  2. Libraries have the advantage of being waterproof, none of the advertising blurb from Apple mentions a Gortex iPad.

    Or a windscreen wiper.

    Or even a windshield wiper.

  3. "when I had no money and wanted to read as much Russian literature as I could."

    Gaw, that captures a certain stereotypical library user wonderfully. I'm imagining you in a frayed old pullover searching for a particular edition of Pushkin amidst raucous young children who have been frogmarched to the Saturday Morning Reading Club, or waitng patiently in line for assistance behind a line of ten pensioners trying to reserve the upcoming Danielle Steele novel. Libraries keep the lights of civilization burning, but they are also great breeding grounds for curmudgeons.

  4. Yes, I believe that at the time I even looked a touch tubercular.

  5. Gaw thanks for the hat tip.. Malty you can sit in Costa nursing a coffee all morning with your Ipad on your knee. Most def better than some freezing library full of old people smelling of piss and reading the Daily Mail..

  6. Yeah but Costa is full of plonkers with iPads, nursing cofee all morning, Simon. But anyway, isn't your problem going to be that Costa will be crammed full of piss-smelling old people reading the Mail on the free iPad you gave them? Back to the drawing board?

  7. Most old people I know smell of Chanel or Aqua da Silva.

    Oh, now I geddit, its disguising the smell of piddle.

    Most old people I know can't be arsed to read newspapers, acquired wisdom tells them it's all a load of porkies.

    Oh, now I geddit, they sit at home behind curtains and read the papers on their Vertus.

    Someone frequents Costa? I daresay they do.

  8. My mother works in a library - seems to keep her busy and she's already way beyond retirement age, so hopefully she'll be there until they ban it altogether (if there are any libraries left by then). Libraries sell off old books too - probably cheaper without the postage.

  9. Brit LOL.. The cost of a fair trade cappuccino will keep the worst offenders out!