I’ve just spent a jolly weekend in Birmingham with some old friends, and as part of our activities this afternoon we went off to raid a fine array of charity shops in the part of town where they live. Amongst the truly baffling range of furniture items on offer, the clothes and shoes, and the (whisper it) Christmas fare already on offer, there were of course a great many books, CDs, LPs and so on. There were also shelves of DVDs. In fact, the night before, we’d been talking about the joys of Netflix and the access it gives you to shows and films that you might wish to see, but never actually want to own. Which echoed a conversation I had with another friend, several days previously, about the joys of living the minimalist life and no owning lots of stuff – streamed film services helping with this particular way of being.
I am not a minimalist. I like Things. (And yes, I didn’t escape the charity shop gauntlet unscathed, although I feel I deserve some minor credit for the relatively obscure nature of one of my purchases: an LP of Holst’s The Perfect Fool, Walton’s arrangements of Bach in The Wise Virgins and Constant Lambert’s Horoscope.) I have books, and CDs, and LPs, and DVDs, and so on. But you know what else I have? Something which enables me, too, to get hold of things without buying every last bit of it from Amazon or indeed any other shop? Something which means that I can return stuff after I’ve seen it, heard it, read it, and for which – shock horror – I don’t even have to pay a monthly subscription cost?
If you haven’t worked it out by now, shame on you.
I am, of course, referring to my library card.
If we are all living in a social media bubble of confirmation bias (and I’m quite sure that, without active effort to be otherwise, most of us are), then it should be no surprise to me that my Twitter feed, for instance, is full of positive messages about libraries and librarians. But these are not the cheery postings of a community content with its vital work and appreciation by the local community. They are the messages of organisations fighting for their very existence. Still. This is a facet of local government that continues to be clobbered repeatedly, and this extends beyond public library branches to school libraries for primary and secondary age children. If you want to know more about the problems that UK libraries face, and how you can help, check out the website of CILIP, the organisation promoting and supporting library and information professionals.
I wonder how best to put my point about the absolute importance of libraries across to anyone reading this post who doesn’t quite buy it. There are hundreds of studies, charts, videos, appeals that go through all the various social and educational functions that a library can have to a local community, and I don’t want to duplicate them when they are expressed so very eloquently elsewhere. So perhaps the best I can do is to deal with three positions which seem to come up fairly frequently in the rhetoric around ‘why do we need libraries anyway?’. Here goes.
No one reads real books any more, it’s all online and mostly free. I mean, I presume there are groups of individuals out there who specialise in screen-reading their way through the complete Anglophone literature published by authors who died before 1943 (and are thus legally out of copyright), because there are special interest groups for everything. But no, actually, not true. The number of sales of print books has increased over the past few years, whilst e-book sales have slumped. Not everything is online. And even if it is online, recent books won’t be free (unless they have been published under Creative Commons), because authors actually need to eat and put a roof over their heads, something which is increasingly impossible through writing. Show some respect. If you want the book, give the author a fair deal for accessing it. Libraries do.
We don’t need librarians, we have Google to find information and non-specialist volunteers can run book collections. How insulting. Of course we need librarians. Google is a blunt searching instrument, sharpened only by paid-for advertising and SEO coding. Librarians have spent years of training in order to understand cataloguing, information and data storage and retrieval, and – perhaps most importantly of all – understanding the quirks of their particular library collections. If you are looking for a particular sort of book, you can ask them and they will help you find it, far more effectively than you would have on your own. They are also part of a network of information professionals promoting good practice, running events, ensuring good services are available to all, helping visitors who are less computer literate and need help, building ties with the local community… on and on it goes. Mind you, I suppose if you own a spanner you don’t bother with a plumber, do you? You could watch a YouTube video and ask a non-specialist volunteer to do it. Let me know how that works out for you.
I have Amazon Prime. And Netflix. Congratulations. I’m sure the Daniel Blakes of this world, the people who can’t afford Amazon Prime and Netflix, the Age Concern group who have nowhere to meet any more, the children who would otherwise spend their rainy afternoons engrossed in picture books or taking part in a youth group and making new friends, the choir which can’t afford to buy a complete set of music even though they used to be able to hire the parts from the now non-existent library, will all applaud your decisions as well.
Now look, here’s the thing. There’s nothing wrong with digital services, with e-books, with the amazing online resources on offer. But there’s also a reason that there’s a library up the road from you… or why there was, anyway. I adore my local library: the welcoming staff, the great books and music and films on offer, the fact that I can order any book held in the whole county and it will be with me within a few days – and the wonderful variety of people who I see benefitting from the space when I go there. What an amazing thing, eh? You can buy shiny new stuff if you want it, get things second-hand from charity shops and support good causes in the process, or go direct to the library and sample all sorts of things for free. No clutter, no expenditure. Just a wonderful resource. Please, please, let’s look after that.