The topic keeps going round on Twitter in these days of cuts and cuts and more cuts to public funded institutions, including libraries. It’s a pretty emotive subject, for those who care — and those who don’t often don’t know that libraries can be a social link, a place to get internet connectivity, a place to do work quietly, to get information about all kinds of topics… as well as the traditional books and resources. I can’t currently think of a library that doesn’t serve at least more than one purpose, whether it be children’s activities or community information. When I lived in Cardiff, they’d just gutted the brand new building and replaced a whole floor with other services to do with benefits and taxes.
Of course, these are all valuable services to the community, and of course libraries have to evolve to stay useful, so I can’t really argue against the Advice Hub in Cardiff Library or Caerphilly Library’s Customer Service Centre. And e-services like borrowing ebooks and audiobooks are also awesome. But libraries are valuable as a place to browse and discover new things, too — as a repository of books you might never think to pick up for yourself. I know I’m not the only one who has started reading some awesome authors and series via library books: Georgette Heyer, Laini Taylor, Sarah J. Maas, John Scalzi… And now I buy the books new, but I would probably never have picked them up if I didn’t get a chance to try them first.
I did also see a poisonous thing going round recently where authors (mostly self-published, I noticed) were complaining that libraries stole their revenue. Well, no, they don’t: they pay for the copy of the book they have, and it’s a finite resource which actually opens up opportunities for authors to reach new readers. In the UK at least, authors receive revenue from library loans via the Public Lending Right.
That’s a tangent, though: the thing is, libraries are important, and trained librarians are important. I was a volunteer for and later on the committee of a community library which had been running for about fifteen years. That’s actually pretty long-lived for such a library, as they often fail due to lack of interest. It’s the Tory Big Society dream: the community comes together to protect and maintain a resource.
Except… we didn’t have much by way of funds. We didn’t have much by way of expertise. Our books were mostly donated by regulars who had already read the books they donated. We had to deal with the upkeep of the building, with space issues, and of course we’d have to get rid of books in bad condition. Until I was on the committee, there was no readily searchable database, and books are still checked in and out by hand (meaning it’s difficult to track them down, and easy for them to go missing). It’s amazing that the library lasted so long on its own, and it’s a testament to the local community’s passion and pride in it that it was a social hub, with classes and events and participation in local life.
But. There may have been one or two volunteers with proper library training, but we were all volunteers. So if someone came in looking for help, the quality of the help they received would strongly depend on whether the volunteer that day knew the proper processes or how to find the information or whatever else. Everyone did the best they could, but without training and resources, our little library was no substitute for a properly funded and equipped library.
So yeah, maybe making libraries into local hubs offering more than just books is a great idea. But I can assure you both that the demand is there for the books, and that the proposed volunteer-run libraries are no real replacement.
If you have a local library, protect it. It’s worth it.