A kind reader sent on this opinion article on why We should shut our libraries. Well, not “we” as in anyone living in the US. That article is from the Vancouver Sun, but the original piece was in the Daily Telegraph, and entitled Liberal whingers are wrong – we should shut our libraries.
It’s a curious piece to be published in Vancouver, since the “we” isn’t a Canadian audience either, and it is mostly attacking British liberals for defending a social agency they never use.
The kind reader considered the piece “inflammatory.” Maybe. The title is the most inflammatory part. The rest of it is tame compared to some of the attacks we’ve seen on libraries in the last couple of years.
The basic thesis of the short article is that libraries are being cut because libraries aren’t being used as much as they used to be. “The crisis in our libraries is not because of the “cuts” – it’s because they are needed less.”
That could very well be true. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the article to back up the claim. There’s absolutely no evidence presented that libraries are used less than they used to be.
It seems to regurgitate the same arguments we hear all over. “Nearly 60 per cent of us don’t go to libraries at all,” and “fewer than one in five adults in England go more than once a month.”
We could just as easily say, ‘over 40 per cent of us use libraries, almost 20 per cent of us more than once a month.” That sounds like pretty good usage.
Without comparative data, it’s hard to know whether this is a change from the past. What has changed from the past is that people with money to spend on computers, Internet connections, and books don’t need or use libraries like they used to.
The author’s whole case is that people who aren’t poor don’t really need libraries, and they’re just defending them for poor people, and they should stop doing that because they look like hypocrites or something. I mean, really, like Brian Blessed ever uses his public library..
Everyone has access to unlimited amounts of information through Google and their “whizzy new mobile phones.” Books are cheap. Etc.
I have to admit, the arguments have some resonance with me. I’m one of those people who can afford to buy the books I want for personal reading. I have or have access to several computers and a whizzy new mobile phone. I rarely set foot in a public library.
And it’s true that twenty years ago I used public libraries for things that I can now do for free at home. Or at least it’s free once I’ve invested thousands of dollars in computers and phones and am able to pay every month for more Internet connection than I’ll ever be able to use.
I’m still not convinced. The only people these arguments work on are people who don’t need libraries and who also don’t care whether other people do.
The only argument I haven’t seen numerous times is this one: “The final defence of the public library is that it is a place for the pupil who has nowhere else to study and revise. Once again, this is the 21st century. Virtually every kid has a desk at home, even if it often has a games console on it.”
I don’t know what daily life for the impoverished masses is like in the UK these days, but in the US I know that not every kid has a desk or a quiet place to study. They might not be going to libraries, because the libraries where these kids live are always the first to be cut, but it’s not because they couldn’t use a safe haven.
The same arguments are made in America all the time, and they all fail when faced with the evidence that a lot of people still use libraries. They don’t use them in the same ways, and I think it’s possible that in twenty years whatever it is that public libraries are doing won’t have much to do with circulating books, movies, or music, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be doing something that portions of the public find useful.
In some ways, librarians are themselves to blame. For years, I have been scolding librarians for their silliness in trying to make public libraries a wonderland for the middle classes who don’t use them as much as they used to. “This isn’t your father’s library! We have music and games and lots of FUN!”
The implication of that kind of approach is that libraries aren’t essential services. They are merely for middle class entertainment, and if the middle classes aren’t coming in, then there’s a problem.
It wasn’t until the past couple of years that librarians, including the ALA, started trumpeting libraries as a necessity for the less well off. “Libraries are being cut even though they’re being used more than ever!”
In some places, that worked. In others it was too late. But in every place the assumption was finally that lots of people need libraries, even if people with middle class incomes often don’t.
By then it might have been too late in some places, because after years of not using libraries as infotainment centers, the people who vote and fund libraries were less interested in funding infotainment for the masses if that’s all libraries were.
For evidence, read “We should shut our libraries” and every article like it.