Posted by: bluesyemre | January 4, 2017

#Libraries are dying – but it’s not about the books by #SimonJenkins


‘The library must rediscover its specialness. This must lie in exploiting the strength of the post-digital age, the ‘age of live’.’ Illustration: Ellie Foreman

Public libraries have had another bad year. They are like churches and local railways. People like having them around, and are angry if they close. But as for using them, well, there is so little time these days.

The latest Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy figures on library closures are dire. In the past five years 343 have gone. Librarian numbers are down by a quarter, with 8,000 jobs lost. Public usage has fallen by 16% and spending by 14%. Book borrowing is plummeting, in some places by a half.

The admirable children’s laureate (and cartoonist) Chris Riddell said during the latest campaign for libraries in November that, “if nurtured by government, they have the ability to transform lives. We must all raise our voices to defend them.”

But what sort of library are we defending? I’m not sure the fault in this lies with that easy target, the government, nor even in the once-gloomy fate of the book. Last week I was in my excellent local library and it was near empty. The adjacent Waterstones was bursting at the seams. I know it was Christmas, but something tells me there is a problem with libraries, not with books. When an institution needs a luvvie-march to survive, it looks doomed.

I was a library addict. I grew up mooching along the shelves of my local branch, feeding on its fantasies of biography, travel and self-help. I was terrified alike of the bespectacled librarian and the tramp behind the Times. When I found vinyls and CDs could be borrowed for free, I was over the moon. But I felt as the Victorians did of library fiction. Should so much pleasure be offered “on the rates”?

The story of the library is the most exhilarating in modern culture. To the US historian Matthew Battles it is a metaphor for the land of opportunity, a place where, “lost in the stacks”, new Americans could “dream of personal success, unaided by unnamed others, a stage with a mirror for backdrop that reflects only the reader”. In Britain, the library was a grammar school without an 11-plus, a teach-yourself academy, a democracy of learning. The most exciting book on my shelf is Great Libraries of the World (the finest being in Portugal’s Coimbra). One day I shall try to see them all.

Battle admits digitisation has changed everything. The public library is no longer a church sacred to knowledge. Its walls have been blasted open, its uniqueness gone. It cannot live in a romantic past, a place where books go to die. Nor need it. So much rubbish is said and written about the death of books. Five years ago, when Amazon ebook sales overtook those of paperback copies, it was assumed the book was doomed. Print was yesterday, one more victim of the great digital wipeout. I have an entire file of obituaries of the book.

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