Public libraries are wonderful things. They have done so much for literacy over the hundred and fifty odd years. But yes, they are on their way out, just like jobs for life, CDs and queueing for a bus. The reason is simple. It’s not what people want anymore.
Libraries are best when they are well-stocked with books and when they afford people a chance to borrow, read and study. Reading and studying needs quiet. This puts a lot of people off, especially young people. Libraries, like any service, need young people to enjoy being there in order to survive as those people grow older. But the kids don’t like them. If they want books, they buy them cheaply from the Internet or borrow them from friends. They don’t like the studious, almost repressed atmosphere of most libraries. So they don’t go. Their children won’t go either, in years to come.
And now that electronic books, such as Amazon’s Kindle are available, books are being downloaded rapidly and cheaply. Sure, an e-reader is more expensive than a trip to the public library, but it’s a lot more fun and a lot more modern. Public libraries were modern once too, in the early 20th century, when many people had no access at all to literature. That just isn’t true now. It’s everywhere.
You could argue that reform would address some of these issues. You can give libraries whatever you like: a cafe, a chat-room, a set of computers. Then it isn’t a public library as the term is understood. Call it what you like: a book-centre, a learning-centre, but it’s not a library. It’s morphed beyond its original purpose and become something else, designed to address different needs.
And will it attract the all-important kids? Maybe. A bit. It won’t solve the fundamental problem that people don’t want or need these public arenas like they used to. Even Internet cafes, once a hyper-modern invention, are now good only for tourists who don’t have a mobile phone. Almost everyone now has Internet access of their own.
That doesn’t mean any of this is bad. This is not the same world of even forty years ago. People want and need ready access to the Internet. They’re quite happy to rent DVDs. They like to talk when they are in a communal space. It just means that the model of the library as it is now – books, reading, silence – is unsustainable.
There are other pressures too. Books are far cheaper and far more easily available than they used to be. And people now generally prefer to own things, even if they will then dump them later on. There is something like a “book cycle”. A book starts off in a major chain, often discounted to less than the price of a round of drinks, it lives in someone’s house, it is turfed out to a second-hand shop or charity fair, comes back to someone else’s house, then it goes back to the fairs and second-hand shops. If you go into any halfway decent second-hand bookshop you will see that the sheer range and quality of books dwarfs most local libraries.
Yes, you argue, but if there were more funding…Well, yes, but the fact is that money is massively tight at the moment. Library services are at the top of the cuts list. Already many local libraries can only afford to stay open ten hours or so a week, and have a limited stock. In my town of four thousand people the library occupies the space of large bedroom. Again, this is not to say that services should be cut, only that they will be. And when the economy picks up, libraries will be at the bottom of the list, because people who don’t use them that much anyway, will not have missed them. There’ll be, as now, passionate campaigns by authors to bring them back, but really, if you can pick up the bestsellers you want with your weekly shopping at Tesco’s or wherever, why bother?
This author is a lover of libraries and of reading. But reality bites you in your soft fleshy parts sometimes, and this is one of them. Public libraries, as we know and love them, are dead.