Battle in Print: "Books should remain the essence of public libraries"

Andrew Wheelhouse vs. Kiranjeet Kaur Gill, 24 October 2007

From: Andrew To: Kiranjeet

Since the Public Library Act 1850, the library has been one of the most important resources available to the community, an active agent in the lifelong education of the general public. Books always have been, and in my opinion always should remain, at the centre of what libraries do. In the past century libraries have seen off challenges from other media that have supposedly threatened to consign the system of book lending to the scrapheap. Cheap paperbacks, radios, television, VCRs and DVDs - all have been successfully incorporated into the system whilst allowing the central mission of libraries, the promotion of reading, to remain relatively unaltered.

But now the threat appears to be coming from within rather than without. A combination of criminally inefficient administration, governmental penny-pinching and a lack of conviction and self-confidence among librarians is serving to cripple the public library service. Visitor numbers are driven down, creating the illusion that book-based libraries aren’t capable of serving the public anymore.

Of course, in their current state this is probably true, but the answer is not to replace bookshelves and study areas with computers, creches and adult education classes. Ask most people why they don’t use the local library and they’ll usually tell you that the opening hours aren’t long enough, or that their appearance is dull and uninspiring, or that their stock isn’t up to date. Concerns over a lack of facilities don’t usually enter into the equation; after all, most people expect the principal concern of a library to be books.

The crux of the matter is that libraries are not doing this properly. The percentage of the libraries budget spent on books stands at around 10 per cent these days, down from around 15 per cent a decade or so ago. Ever more money is being spent, it seems, on back room staff, or squandered on whatever half-baked fad the government is banging its drum about in order to coax up visitor numbers.

The solution is much more simple than that. Today’s consumers are more demanding than ever, but they are hardly stupid or uneducated. Book sales are continually rising, and more books than ever are being published. The government should get the basics right: update collections and modernise buildings where appropriate so they’re as welcoming and comfortable as high street bookstores like Waterstone’s or Borders. Obscuring the true purpose of libraries through meaningless labels like ‘idea stores’ and diversifying their functions may shore up visitor levels, but it shows a condescending cynicism on the part of those in power. All of a sudden we are being thought of as too busy or unintelligent to bother with a book. And that would be a true tragedy.

From: Kiranjeet To: Andrew

You say that libraries are one of the most important resources available to communities - this is undoubtedly true. For generations they have educated and inspired the public with the books so crucial to the success and popularity of any library. With the increasing availability of modern technology, however, and in particular the advent of the internet, we have seen falling visitor numbers and drastically reduced book borrowing figures. It is clear that the public is no longer drawn to libraries that only have books to offer. Society has changed and developed in terms of its aspirations and expectations, and whilst most other public services have been modernised in line with this it seems that in many cases libraries have been left behind, full of books that are effectively going to waste.

It is wrong to suggest that the problems are external to libraries themselves - no amount of government spending and string-pulling, or self-confidence amongst librarians, is going to attract visitors when they feel that the service they will receive is out of date and doesn’t meet their needs. This is why it is necessary to increase the range of services offered by libraries, and this means shifting the focus from books to the computers and adult education classes you mention. This is what people want. To have these facilities, in an environment where there is also free access to a huge catalogue of books, is surely the best way for libraries to fulfil their purpose of educating people.

It’s hardly surprising to hear that libraries’ spending on books has decreased. Visitor numbers and book borrowing are down, so why should spending on books have remained the same? Surely this would amount to huge numbers of unread, untouched books - a huge waste in anyone’s view I’m sure. Undoubtedly, any extra money would be far better spent on improving or creating other services and facilities in libraries - ones that people do or will actually use - instead of wasting it on a medium that is in decline, just to keep the statistics looking good and to keep happy those who like to whine about a lack of spending on books.

It is certainly true to say that today’s consumers are incredibly demanding, and of course they are not stupid or uneducated. In any other market, businesses offer ever-improving goods and services in order to woo the consumer, and it seems there is a failure on the part of libraries as a whole to offer the right ‘goods’ to keep library users interested: books are, like, so last century. Bookstore chains like Waterstone’s and Borders do not just offer books to their customers - coffee shops, meeting places and a huge range of events are all part of the attraction, and there is no reason why libraries cannot do the same. The enormous success of the Idea Store in Tower Hamlets, which offers adult education classes, a cafe and various events in addition to the library, shows that the public finds this far from condescending: visitor numbers are treble those received by the two libraries that the Idea Store replaced. Yes, it may be just a poncey term for what is otherwise, well, just a library, but it seems to be exactly what is needed to rekindle our love for the library.

From: Andrew To: Kiranjeet

I don’t agree with the idea that bookshops are more popular due to offering more facilities to consumers. Most bookshops I visit turn out to be full of books, as opposed to adult education classes, computers or nappy changing facilities. What they are actually doing is beating public libraries at their own game by providing a more attractive environment to browse in or purchase literature.

You said yourself that ‘no amount of government spending and string-pulling…is going to attract visitors when they feel that the service they will be provided with is out of date and doesn’t meet their needs.’ Yet the decline of library use since the mid-1980s has come in the face of the installation of large numbers of computers at great expense to the taxpayer. Myths linger because they are self-serving, and the idea that the public don’t want books has the distinct bouquet of governmental spin. Reform is always necessary to make public services effective, but in the case of this government it seems that reform is being carried out for the sake of appearances, when the solutions to problems in areas such as public libraries could be a lot simpler.

The success of the much-vaunted ‘Ideas Stores’ that replaced two public libraries in Tower Hamlets probably has a lot more to do with the funky aesthetics, and the praise worthy levels of funding and marketing that have been provided, rather than the presence of creches and pottery wheels per se. It feels like distinctly post hoc reasoning to suggest that reduced spending on books was the natural result of reduced visitor numbers and that huge numbers of books are simply mouldering on the shelves, when in fact library stocks are in a dire state. This false cause and effect plays into the government’s hands as it allows them to justify further spending cuts in services that don’t provide ‘value for money’, as if they were shareholders who expected to receive the windfall without the investment. As Tim Coates has said, if public libraries were run by a private company the alarm bells would have started ringing a long time ago.

I feel there is also a case to be argued about the value of libraries as centres of learning, and repositories of knowledge, and not simply as ‘social hubs.’ While current attempts to use libraries as centres for promoting community cohesion are admirable in their sentiment, the danger is that as a result the intellectual function of libraries can end up being neglected.

Just look at the government’s plan in January to slash the British Library’s funding by seven per cent. As a result the permanent collection is going to have to be cut by 15 per cent, rather an inconvenience if you are supposed to be a legal deposit library. The Department for Culture spokesman said that ‘the cultural sector has had huge real-term increases in funding since 1997. Clearly this cannot go on indefinitely.’ While this is true it is dangerous to assume that the cultural sector is going to be able to sustain its current level of service, inadequate though it may be, if the government pulls the funding rug out from under it.

From: Kiranjeet To: Andrew

Your argument that it is just governmental spin to say that the public no longer wants to read books is a long way from the truth: advertisements for computer games in my local library read simply: ‘I don’t do books’, and the crux of the matter, as disheartening as it may be for traditionalists, is that not everyone is interested in reading any more, and those who are often prefer to buy their books rather than just borrow them. You say that what bookshops are doing is ‘beating public libraries at their own game by providing a more attractive environment to browse in or to purchase literature’, and it is in this that we see one of the main arguments for why libraries are in desperate need of modernisation: people are far more likely to want to spend time in a modern, comfortable bookshop than in a stuffy old library. Of course it is perfectly possible for public libraries to be modernised without the addition of, say, a coffee shop, or the provision of adult education classes, but they will all help, not just in making libraries more appealing to current users, but in drawing back lapsed users, or even attracting those who do not currently make use of the facilities available.

Throughout your arguments, you seem to jump to the conclusion that moving the focus of libraries away from books will lead to an automatic loss of their status as ‘centres of learning, and repositories of knowledge’, but this would simply not be the case. There is no danger of creating what is nothing more than a ‘social hub’ in the guise of a place of education; instead we would be adapting what is already provided to suit better the needs of the public. There would be huge increases in visitor numbers, with people making full use of all facilities provided. The local community would get the educational, and albeit limited leisure services, that it wants, and the libraries would thus be fulfilling their duty to the public.

Additionally, to suggest that the modernisers do not value libraries as ‘centres of learning’ is incorrect. They are simply being realistic and understanding that libraries need to be brought up to date. It is only really library ‘purists’ that would have any objection to modernising libraries in this way. Any suggestion of diverting the main focus of libraries away from books seems to result in a kind of hysteria about the nation’s entire canon of literature, all its reference books, and indeed even the trashiest pieces of chick lit, suddenly disappearing from the shelves, never to be seen again. However, it is important to remember that changing the focus of libraries away from books is not in itself going to render books obsolete, and that they will still be there for people who want to make use of them.

From: Andrew To: Kiranjeet

You are right in suggesting that the debate surrounding this issue has had a polarising effect on cultural commentators, who either somewhat defensively insist that things are getting better and better or are of the firm belief that everything is going to the dogs. I do not believe the latter, and I do not think that my end of the debate represents a ‘Custer’s last stand’ style defence of all that is great and good in British cultural life.

However, I do believe that moving the focus of public libraries away from books reflects some worrying trends of thought within the British political and cultural elite. Just to move back to the heart of the debate, let us consider why exactly we have libraries. Put simply, it is primarily for the pursuit of knowledge and learning for the better education of humanity. Or at least, it should be. The original system of public libraries were lauded as being ‘universities of the street corner’, as they had the magic combination of popularity and a serious intellectual function.

These days, though, the government seems to be neglecting the latter in pursuit of the former. You are right in positing that it is alarmist to suggest that ongoing reform will sterilise libraries of intellectual function, but irresponsible reform can still dilute it to a dangerous degree. For instance, one key government strategy paper said that ‘libraries must now include cafŽs, lounge areas with sofas and chill out zones where young people can watch MTV, read magazines and listen to CDs on their listening posts’.

Feel the intellectual rigour? I admit, given a spare half-hour I am as likely as the next teenager to whittle it away on MTV or bavardage, but that hardly gives those activities the same worthiness as what could be achieved in the library proper. As you said, some young people just ‘don’t do books.’ That is a shame, but that does not mean we should be having this crisis of self-confidence over whether or not books are worth promoting further in libraries.

Healthy visitor numbers are always a bonus for public amenities, but the attitudes that are currently prevalent are worrying, reflecting the way that the government has promoted quantity over quality in other areas. In the same way that the intellectual integrity of the education system is being compromised in order to make it cough up results, so the purpose of libraries is being muddied for the same reason. Yes people may come in to lounge around for a bit and watch some MTV, but what benefit do they get out of it, apart from doing something that they nominally want to do and which they could probably do at home at no cost to the taxpayer? The answer is not much benefit. Government should recognise this and have the courage to invest in books. They may be less immediately popular than a coffee or a bit of chill out time, but ultimately they will do you more good.

From: Kiranjeet To: Andrew

I agree that one of the primary purposes of a library is the pursuit of knowledge, and with all the accusations of ‘dumbing down’ in the education sector it is all too easy for libraries to be criticised for doing the same thing. It is not the case, however, that libraries have gone from ‘universities of the street corner’ to nothing more than playschools (complete with sandpits and finger paints). You are right when you say that it is worrying when libraries are promoted simply as glorified youth groups with nothing more to offer than a place to relax, but clearly this is a misguided attempt by the government to make libraries ‘cool’. It is perfectly possible, though, to make libraries into modern centres of education, as well as leisure, without turning them into mere social hubs, and action needs to be taken to allow libraries to change in a positive way so that they are not forced to take desperate measures like those you mention.

It is also important to bear in mind that libraries are now just as if not more likely to offer a huge range of fiction as they are to offer factual books. This branching out into books that are read more for pleasure is a reflection of the change from libraries’ beginnings as places of information and education to places that are far more entertainment and pleasure-focused. We can therefore see the current shift in the focus of libraries as simply an extension not just of continuing change within libraries themselves, but also as part of increasing commercialisation within almost every public sector. In the case of libraries, however, attempts at modernisation have fallen short, and they are in no better position than they were previously, and the situation will not improve as long as books remain the essence of public libraries.

You also seem to be treading on dangerous ground when you suggest that libraries only have a ‘serious intellectual function’ when they are full of books; is there no way that people can be educated without the use of books? There are, of course, those academic heavyweights who need books on topics most of us didn’t even realise existed and for this reason it is important to differentiate between ordinary libraries and the likes of the British and the Bodleian, those that are, and will remain, the primary destinations for those serious about research.

Surely, though, in our modern, ‘enlightened’ society we are able to realise that what is best for one person is not necessarily good for another, and to suggest that books are the only way through which a person can learn is elitist and old-fashioned. It has been suggested that for many people libraries can in fact be rather intimidating places, and at the moment it seems that nothing is being done to dispel the myth. The lack of promotion and funding doesn’t help the situation, and we have been left with public libraries that no one wants to use, a sign, surely, that we need change.


Andrew Wheelhouse studies law at St. John’s College, Cambridge and Kiranjeet Kaur Gill studies biomedical sciences at the University of Southampton. They both competed in the Institute of Ideas and Pfizer Debating Matters Competition during their time at Luton Sixth Form College and have since both written for the Institute of Ideas’ reviews website, Culture Wars.

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