In the disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow, a group of survivors shelters from an abrupt new ice age in the New York Public Library. They burn books to keep warm. It’s a cute joke. It makes one feel more warmly towards not only libraries but, oddly, ice ages. I grew up in suburban Surrey, and if ever civilisation vanishes in a giant snowstorm, I like to think Dorking library is where I’d take shelter. I’d be selective about what I burned.
Library excitement never leaves you: the smell of the plastic-coated books, their unceasing novelty and seemingly limitless numbers, and the promise of being able to take a whole armload away and read them… In no other area of life was an eight-year-old offered such abundance.
Every bookish adult in this country, pretty much, will have a similar story. For some, the library was a ladder — the means by which kids from deprived backgrounds were able to get their hands on the books that transformed their prospects. For the more privileged, like me, a public library didn’t represent the difference between placement at a call centre and a Cambridge college. But it shaped the experience of books, and enabled wide and greedy reading, in a way no other institution could.
You’d have to be very privileged indeed to have parents who could afford to buy new the three, four, five or more books that a thirsty child can go through every week; or whose home would contain enough books to anything like supply the thirst. My house now is full of books — stuffed with them. My three- and one-year-olds are well supplied at home. But still, our local library in north London is a resource we can’t begin to match.
The arguments that all this must come to an end are getting louder, though, and they come not single spies. Libraries are a luxury we can’t afford, some say — that’s an argument, effectively, made by the many local councils whose response to funding cuts from central government has been to cut provision or close libraries altogether.
Another argument, less often heard but propounded last month by the Horrible Histories author Terry Deary, is that the very idea behind public libraries — ‘an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers’ — is actively pernicious. He professes himself baffled at the many published authors who campaign against library closures, ‘when libraries are cutting their throats and slashing their purses’.
Still another is that in an age when books can be stored and transmitted digitally, it’s simply eccentric to invest time and money maintaining great barns of perishable physical books in order for perishable physical humans to pick them up, take them away and bring them back again.
It would be obtuse to pretend that none of these cases has any merit. The digital era has huge implications for both public and research libraries, and publishers and authors are entitled to make a living. But we can concede the diagnosis without agreeing that the cure is the steady or abrupt disappearance of the library as an institution.
We know that publishers are suffering. But the problems facing publishers and the problems facing libraries aren’t the same ones. The idea that the book is an object that can be reproduced and shared an infinite number of times for next to no cost, for instance, is kryptonite to publishers (and authors). For librarians and library users, though, it’s bliss.
An extreme statement of the position would have it that a single copyright library (i.e. one like the British Library, which by law gets a copy of every book printed), fully digitised, could also be every single lending library in the country. That is, I admit, to shelve the unanswerable point that anything bad for publishers is bad for libraries in the long run: but it does point to some real room for manoeuvre.
It’s also worth noting that libraries have always been both physical and virtual spaces. What is a footnote, after all, but a sort of hyperlink — a wormhole between one text and another? What is Google but a super-fast descendent of the card catalogue or a Dewey Decimal filing system — a way of organising information? In some ways, you could see libraries as pre-adapted to the digital age.
There are already mechanisms by which ebooks can be borrowed — though there are headache-inducing inconsistencies, too. At present, Public Lending Right, which ensures that authors get a fee when their books are borrowed, doesn’t apply to ebooks. Nor does the leading e-lending mechanism, OverDrive, serve certain platforms such as Kindle.
Take-up is patchy — the number of public libraries lending, or planning to be lending, ebooks by the end of the year is less than three quarters, and figures even in established schemes are still tiny compared with the number borrowing dead-tree books. Some publishers simply won’t play; others want to be paid. Some ebook lending schemes — Amazon last autumn launched its Kindle owners’ lending library for premium users — bypass public libraries altogether. And to confuse things further, Amazon has applied to patent a technology that allows people to sell secondhand ebooks (get your head around the implications of that, if you will).
But we needn’t fold our tents yet. Some or all of these issues will, one way and another, shake out — not all, probably, to advantage; but as the ground firms it’ll be easier to see a path forward. The culture minister, Ed Vaizey, has ordered a review of issues around e-lending. And we are not without models.
The New York Public Library — which is both a high-end research library and an ordinary public lending institution — has a whole programme of digital engagement and — mirabile dictu — actually turns a profit; as its librarian Christopher Platt’s piece (adjacent) explains. As one admiring recent report has it, ‘The New York Public Library is a social network with three million active users.’
That emphasis on communality seems to me to go to the heart of it. It’s not simply as repositories of books to be borrowed by individuals that libraries have their value. They matter as physical places too: the process of going to a library and coming back, checking books out and checking them back in, makes a habitual connection with what they represent. They aren’t just a place for tramps to keep warm in winter and kids who’ve been grounded to get access to videogames.
Libraries are our cultural memory. To have a relationship with one is to have a relationship with the culture itself — and to feel, in its (relative) orderliness and calm, something of what it is to inhabit a civic space. That includes the paying of fines. Here is a child’s first encounter with the social contract: the idea that a communal good is made available to you, but that certain obligations (taking care of the books, returning them in a timely way and so on) are expected in return.
Yes, pace Terry Deary, books are a form of entertainment — and there are few enough forms of entertainment that we expect the state to connive in giving away for free. But they are more than just entertainment: they are the pith of our culture and the incubator of its future. It is not too much to see them as sacred spaces. In a chilly world, more simply put, the library is a very good place to keep warm.
Illustration by Mitch Blunt