In the oncoming battle for the future of the nation's libraries, we are going to hear a lot of polarised opinions. On one side will be the devoted readers, the passionate defenders of library literacy who, as children, always took out as many books out as their library card allowed. On the other side, the affluent or apathetic readers, who see no further need for any kind of centralised public information facility.
As for me, well I have to admit that I don't use my local library that much. I maybe take my kids there for an hour or so every month. Our house is packed with a tottering stack of books and DVDs that will most likely outlive the time I have left to watch or read them, even if I live to be a hundred. I used to go to the library every day, to write and look at reference material, but my attendance waned as the library got noisier and the internet provided all the research material I could ever want. When I visit our local library nowadays, half the people are sitting at a computer terminal, watching YouTube or updating their Facebook status. I'm not really sure that providing access to YouTube has much of a public service remit.
But wait, I'm not advocating the closure of libraries, far from it. I don't think that I, or my children, should be the target audience for libraries. We can afford books - lots of them. My wife used to be a librarian, for heaven's sake. My children's literacy doesn't need much help from the state, but I'm aware that we might be the exception. With many adults not seeing a place for books anymore in our always-online society, how many children are growing up without a varied media diet that contains books alongside TV and XBox? We all know, somewhere deep in our hearts, that kids need to read. But with reading seeming more and more of a chore, isn't it easier to let that slip?
In Oxfordshire, where I live, 20 of the county's 43 libraries face the axe. I can imagine some of these - in posh areas like Summertown - being taken over by willing volunteers and continuing in some fashion. But what future for Blackbird Leys library, or Littlemore? Can people in these areas afford to work less in order to support a voluntary system? The very communities that desperately need these facilities will see them taken away. In five years time, families will be able to drive past the ex-library buildings - now housing a Tesco Express or Poundland - and spot the corpse of social mobility festering in the gutter.
Admittedly, as a children's author I have a vested interest here. PLR might be unlikely to provide me with much income in the future, but libraries are wonderful for promoting that most elusive of magical ingredients - word of mouth. It's no decision at all for a child to take a risk on a book from the library - if they don't like it then all they've spent is a few calories carrying the book home. In a bookshop, however, they face a very expensive choice - how likely are they to choose my book over a more established author? Kids have always been incredibly media literate - who knows if one might talk about a book of mine they've read or construct a playground game around it? Libraries are a great vehicle for getting the word out about my writing and a great venue for author events.
I don't know what the answer is to saving our libraries. But I do know that they are a vital public service and we need to make a hell of a lot of noise about their potential demise.
Some other links on this important subject:
Campaign for the Book Official Facebook Site
Notes from the Slushpile - Bye Bye Libraries. Bye Bye Civilization
Why you should care about libraries
Open Letter to Jeremy Hunt MP, John Penrose MP and Ed Vaizey MP
Why Libraries Really, Really Matter