Libraries - an "ethos in search of a function"

Among the gay charivari of Newsnacht, a piece by David Grossman caught my eye. He did a report on Libraries the other night and at the outset asked the above question: are they "an ethos in search of a function?", in other words, merely a sentimental prop from the past, like Ovaltine and the Light Programme - an under-used throwback to a long passed age.

Libraries, like red phone boxes and belisha beacons and bobbies on bicycles are disappearing. In 1998, there were 3,066. Now there are 2,870. Just under half a million books were borrowed in the year ending 1998, in the year ending 2007, this had reduced to some 314,000.

Neither are punters going to libraries for other reasons, e.g. to keep warm or wee on the seats. Visits are down too. But a local council representative said on the Grossman piece, "We are determined to maintain the service".

Clearly the arguments for and against are obvious and tend to fall into the category of cash versus culture. But, what do you think? I use a library, but then again, I read a lot and don't want my home filled with books I shall never need again. But for me, it is an added extra. I can afford to buy any book I want. I don't need the library. The argument that poor people need them is not a strong argument. Poor people who understand and can uses libraries are quite capable of getting books in other ways, such as in charity shops or by borrowing from friends, or nicking them.

I must have more books left with friends, that are now circulating the world, than I actually have in my home. That is because nobody ever gives books back. Worse thing is, I only lend stuff I can recommend, so I end up buying the same book over and over.

But I digress. Are libraries doomed, like Post Offices, to become a thing of the past?


subrosa said...

Firstly let me deal with the more important issue here. Ovaltine is NOT a thing of the past. I have it on the odd occasion when I can't cope with certain nasal noises in the night.

Right, to answer your question, I do hope libraries are not a thing of the past either. My library is valuable to me. Like you, I can afford books but I don't want to fill my attic with books I didn't enjoy. With a library you just stop reading and return it.

My local library makes fantastic efforts at involving children in books and it has the internet access plus a voluntary ancestor hunting section.

If my library bit the dust I would withhold some of my council tax.

Wrinkled Weasel said...

I drink Ovaltine too, Subrosa. And even wear pajamas and sit by the fire, reading quietly.

bookworm said...

I use the library regularly. Ours has all the newspapers aswell and internet access if the web access is down in the house. I read the book reviews online and then order the books from the library. I've had loads of new hardback books that were ordered just for me and hope I've improved their stock in the library. I have a friend who orders books for the council libraries and it won't surprise you to learn that she has no interest in books and just orders what the rep advises ( ie what he's getting the best commission on )
I don't keep books either and give away the odd paperback that I might buy as I hate any clutter.

Ruth@VS said...

A mobile library stops outside my house every other Tuesday - I always have books out. Unfortunately I'm one of the youngest on the round, most are pensioners who are dying off. I also use the town library, which has an excellent reference section. We don't get much for our council tax, so the library is very valuable.

Conan the Librarian™ said...

My library demographics:
15-20% readers
10% homeless drunks looking for a place to sleep.
5% homeless junkies looking for something to steal.
10% Poles booking flights back to Poland.
5% feral youth looking for trouble.
The rest is made up from Wi Fi users huddled around every available plug point.

Wrinkled Weasel said...

I do not think my readers are representative of the general population, being well-read, literate and capable of taking advantage of simple ideas like "free books" "brought to your door".

I was dismayed to hear that the buyer for "bookworm's" library is not interested in books. My library has a novel (excuse the pun) idea; they have a shelf for books they do not recommend, books they do not like. I was pleased to see Dan Brown on there as well as Harry Potter.

My library is also a community centre, with a cafe and a hall for activities. It is fairly new and I think I get the most out of it. Still, I am not sure we can go on justifying this type of public expenditure. It's nice, but, I pay £30 to the Government everytime I fill my petrol tank. If you said, you can pay a fiver less every single time, if you lose libraries, I would go for the money saving option. I prefer to have that fiver to buy my own books.

Dave said...

I'd like to say that I'm a fan of our library, the same as I'm a fan of our fine old church. They're nice to walk past, a link with olden times when learning to read and write was the key to betterment and the local library the place to study.

However, the world moves on. I sold books about twenty years ago and remember one woman asking if I had a video of a particular novel that formed part of the GCSE exam that year. Her son, bless him, didn't like to read so wanted to watch the video instead. The fact that the ending was changed in the film didn't matter. She wouldn't be told so I reluctantly took her money.
Local libraries are doomed. large libraries may survive but they won't be free.