Why we need to save libraries

OED: Library – ‘Collection of books or place in which it is kept; reading or writing room in a house’

In September, Jackie at Farmlane Books Blog hosted a very fine discussion on the present state of libraries in England and the US with her post ‘How Can We Save UK Libraries‘ ?

Since autumn last year local campaigns to save public libraries from closure have grown in number and have become more vocal.  This week, the Guardian reported how my twitter friend, @mardixon‘s question ‘went viral’, attracting ‘more than 5,000 responses worldwide’.

Libraries are important because … [fill in your answer & RT] #savelibraries

Oddly, the article focused on the speed of the retweeting and the celebrity interest in the hashtag rather than use Mar’s tweet as a springboard to open discussion on the campaigns behind it. The Guardian reports that most of the retweeted responses were memories of childhood book-borrrowing: “Libraries are important because, as a child, some of my best friends lived within the pages of a book”.

However emotionally attached we are to the idea of ‘the library’, we have to admit that they are not what they once were. Libraries have evolved into community hubs providing computer access and meeting spaces. Their holdings include audio books, DVDs and CDS alongside books.

PLR data records the borrowing habits of cardholders in the UK and it throws up some interesting facts. The most borrowed library books [2008/09] were popular fiction titles, ‘thrillers, romance and crime’. Children’s fiction featured heavily.  Literary fiction was ‘striking by its absence’  – non-fiction was ‘barely represented’ and, once parental influence diminishes, so, it appears from the data, does late teen book-borrowing. 

It’s wonderful to read and to be entertained. Escapist fiction has its place, of course it does. But what will happen when councils make those hard decisions about what to keep and what to sell?

What will happen to any rare books, manuscripts or archives on which the current libraries are built?

In making the case that a library must be all things to all people there is a very real danger that these holdings will be sold off to preserve books which are borrowed most often. Does it really come down to, say, a choice of the full serialisation of Bleak House in their original blue covers or buying the current title by Nora Roberts?

In his recent paper entitled ‘Libraries at Risk’, presented during the Seminar on the History of Libraries, Professor David McKitterick (Trinity College, Cambridge) made a compelling argument for remaining vigilant about our printed heritage.

>>>>>click to hear the >>PODCAST

It’s sobering to think about what is lost.

But it’s not too late. The first step is to take this opportunity to begin an open debate about our public libraries and to include within those discussions an examination of the current holdings.

[The paper was presented at the Institute of English Studies, University of London on 30 November 2010] — The podcast is shared [with kind permission] from the website of the Institute of the History of Ideas website under ‘History of Libraries’

4 thoughts on “Why we need to save libraries

  1. Actually I don’t know the actual situation of the libraries in USA and UK. But I know libraries must be saved everywhere as the best places where books could be found… We shouldn’t forget the great power these small objects have, Flesh for example changed people’s minds about preservation of the ozon layer in the last century. I also remember what a great influence my 1st Tale of The Rock Pieces had on 2 kids of a friend of mine, they still take a good care of their health, they do exercises every day, don’t drink strong drinks, don’t smoke too… I guess every writer and reader must give similar examples?
    Books are really amazing objects, so libraries must be preserved as the best places a book could be found! Best wishes to all book, libraries fans! I’ll keep my fingers/toes crossed too for the best condition of libraries everywhere in the world! LET THE WONDERFUL NOISE OF THE SEA ALWAYS SOUNDS IN YOUR EARS! (a greeting of my water dragons’ hunters).

    1. Fay Weldon calls books ‘portable worlds’ which neatly sums up their importance. Sometimes we forget just how powerful a book can be; even something so simple as a children’s story has the power to influence change.
      All good wishes with your writing, Ivan/Allan.

  2. The state of libraries in this country is very worrying, but if we have to make any tough choices then I really hope they focus the libraries on the children – they are the ones that really benefit from visiting them. I really hope that as many library services as possible can be saved. I’ve got all my fingers and toes crossed.

    1. I agree, Jackie, that the state of the libraries is worrying. I think the good thing about libraries, that they are run by individual councils, is also part of the problem just now. The level of service differs so widely across the UK that it’s hard to use a blanket campaign to ‘save our libraries’ when some, to be honest, don’t offer a good service. Where they are well run and well used it’s worrying that these might be lost. What needs to be done, I think, is to examine the whole provision and perhaps rethink the model for 21st century use. The first step is to catalogue current holdings. Councils will then be in a better decision to decide what to do.

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