Libraries in the digital age

The future of the public lending library is hot news.  The sleepier corners of quiet suburban streets play host to government ministers and fervid journalists arguing that the onslaught on these minor temples of literacy must be stopped.   Heckling protestors assert the importance of libraries to their communities, the invaluable and irreplaceable role they play.  Only philistines, they say, would consider touching one brick of any library.  Despite the other cuts, libraries must be protected.

So, we must ask, what do libraries do?  There are three distinct roles I can see.  They’re often drop-in centres, particularly for older people.  They’re warm, have some comfy chairs, friendly staff and, of course, books to read.  These days, some of them even sell a cup of tea.   Secondly, they’re places for children, especially very young ones.  The papers are full of journos who have rediscovered their library while on parental leave, whose weekends are enriched by reading picture books in the children’s area.  And thirdly, of course, they are places that facilitate study.  The home of reference books and quieter spaces for homework.  A source for reading, whether educational or frivolous, on the basis that reading is a good thing.  Time-limited, free access to the written word.

How can any reader, any writer, argue with these objectives?

The UK national government has set its hand to massive reductions in the public sector.  Some of the implementation decisions are passed on to local councils which run libraries.   Councillors, often close to a vociferous electorate unfamiliar to Ministers, must make dismal choices:  day centres or libraries.  Lollipop ladies or curriculum support.  Better roads or new homes.  There are no good answers, only making the best of a bad job.  Not surprisingly, many authorities are closing libraries, clear that even so they will be meeting their statutory responsibilities.  (I’m not going to talk about that one here:  the Courts will doubtless get their say.)

It is time to distinguish between the physical object – book – and the distribution mechanism for the content.  For centuries, the content has been almost indistinguishable from the mechanism.  It’s all paper between covers.  That’s not true any more, which takes us straight in to the heated debates about the future of publishing.  The last few months have seen the milestones fall.  Over £1bn of ebooks sold.  Amazon reporting that downloads are exceeding the sale of printed copies.  Predictions that 2010 UK Kindle sales exceeded 8 million (up from 2.4m in 2009).  This is the watershed.  Content is increasingly available through cyberspace, and more of us are taking that route every day.

Within cyberspace, lending has been difficult and controversial.  Amazon and Apple followed Barnes & Noble into allowing lending rather belatedly.  In fact, it’s not ‘lending’ at all.  It’s allowing the owner of a licence to read (you) to share that licence with someone else (me) for two weeks, on a one-time only basis.  Lots of sales gimmicks (read a sample, additional content and so on) are being promoted as alternatives, but they’re not.  Readers know that, and writers shouldn’t fall for it.  But it shows that the technological basis is there for allowing time-limited access to the written word distributed through electronic media.

So, shouldn’t libraries get in on the act?  How can they enable that kind of access?  C’mon electronic publishers and distributors, that’s a fundamental discussion we need to have right now.  And national government can help by opening up those negotiations, and taking VAT off ebooks.

There are huge implications for the shape and role of libraries.  At least half of lending is of adult commercial fiction, exactly the material that’s most accessible and most read through ebooks.  If you need much less space for that material, (maybe you give a Kindle to everyone over 65 in your area)  you can release space for study, for children’s access, for all sorts of other functions.  Or perhaps you just don’t need the space at all.

In the public row about cuts, this discussion is almost invisible.  We are hearing a lot of better-off people arguing the community centre role for libraries.   A friend described one demonstration in a very middle-class area, protecting a library with a tiny and diminishing footfall, as full of posh placards.  I love the image of mink-rimmed protest signs, with never an apostrophe out of place.  But, even in much more deprived areas, if the fundamental job of the building is not to warehouse books but to provide a drop-in centre, then let’s argue the value of that centre.  Don’t dress it up in a debate about the fundamental role of promoting literacy and education amongst poorer people, which is central to the noble history of public lending in this country.

And that debate, that crusade is still enormously important.  The UK has an official, post-15 literacy rate of 99%, but we all know that there are huge variations between regions, between communities and at different ages.   I have no doubt about the importance of promoting a love of reading, or about the value of free access to books via a public library system.

My question is whether these aims are best served simply by protecting the 19th century model, often in 19th century buildings.  Instead, we should be looking at the effectiveness, and the financial models, that exploit both the new distribution routes, and our eagerness to use them.

Doubtless I will be returning to this topic.

(I should add, to avoid any doubt, that this post represents only my own thoughts.  It should not be taken to be the views of any of my clients in my professional life.)

About Sarah Tanburn

I'm a writer, a sailor and a strategic adviser to public organisations. Visit my websites to find out more.
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