Man walks into a column, no.5: Libraries

This is a post by Phil

It’s tempting for a fledgling blogger to write something controversial for the sake of courting attention. That’s not what this is about, honestly. The fact is that I found the text of Philip Pullman’s recent speech in defence of public libraries to be at once impassioned, forceful, moving and… well… a little simplistic.

There’s tons of stuff to agree with, and particularly cogent arguments against the blasé assumption that volunteers are the answer to all the world’s problems. Do we really think that the job of the librarian is so simple that anyone could step in and do it, Pullman asks? How on earth will local people find the time to volunteer when they find it difficult enough to squeeze in work, family responsibilities and everything else? Won’t a strategy that revolves around communities bidding for the right to run libraries favour folk in more affluent areas who are better placed to put together winning bids?

Exceptionally sound points all. But what motivates Pullman at base is his fundamental, deeply-held love for libraries. He recounts his delight upon being enrolled at the first library he ever visited: ‘All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted!’. He goes on to say that:

Somewhere in Blackbird Leys, somewhere in Berinsfield, somewhere in Botley, somewhere in Benson or in Bampton, to name only the communities beginning with B whose libraries are going to be abolished, somewhere in each of them there is a child right now, there are children, just like me at that age in Battersea, children who only need to make that discovery to learn that they too are citizens of the republic of reading. Only the public library can give them that gift.

And that last point is where I found myself disagreeing. Because however brilliant many libraries are, as buildings and as spaces for people to come together, isn’t free access to books the basic human right, rather than free access to libraries? And are libraries really the only way of achieving that goal?

I think we’re in danger of confusing ends with means. As anyone who works behind the scenes at a council department responsible for library funding will know, it costs an astonishing amount for every book loaned. Much of this comes from the costs of maintaining a large number of ageing, often dilapidated buildings, but also from the inefficiencies caused by the system of distributing books amongst so many points of access.

In a time of severe financial constraints I think the ‘this is the way we’ve always done things’ complaint just isn’t good enough. We need to focus on the outcomes that are important, and find imaginative, genuinely workable ways of achieving them with fewer resources.

If to solve the libraries funding crisis we have to turn to a LoveFilm-esque subscription service, with books posted out from a central depository, and/or a smaller number of ‘hub’ libraries with good transport links and much larger, more efficiently managed collections, is that such a terrible thing as long as people get free or low-cost access to a wide range of books?

I know that libraries have other benefits too, but again we should ask: are the libraries as currently provided the best and most efficient way to achieve the goals of e.g. access to the internet or a place for isolated older people to come together? Maybe they are, but let’s start with the things we want to achieve and work back from there, rather than assuming that the current model of service provision is necessarily the right one for the future.

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