Terrance Heath

Where Would I Be Without the Library? [Part 2]

Filed By Terrance Heath | February 21, 2013 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: libraries are irrelevant, library system, public libraries, public service

I can’t imagine a world without public libraries, and I don’t want to. So, it disturbed to read that a best-selling author in Britain says that libraries have “had their day,”“have been around too long,” and are “no longer relevant.”

Library is ClosedLibraries “have been around too long” and are “no longer relevant”, according to Horrible Histories author Terry Deary, an apparently lone literary voice to believe that libraries have “had their day”.

Deary, a bestselling author who was also the seventh most-borrowed children’s writer from UK libraries last year, was speaking as his local council in Sunderland became the latest authority to look into the possibility of closing branches to save money. But unlike other authors up and down the country, who have come together to protest the closures of their local branches, Deary was clear that libraries have had their day.

“I’m not attacking libraries, I’m attacking the concept behind libraries, which is no longer relevant,” Deary told the Guardian, pointing out that the original Public Libraries Act, which gave rise to the first free public libraries in the UK, was passed in 1850. “Because it’s been 150 years, we’ve got this idea that we’ve got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers. This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that,” said Deary, who has received hate mail since he first aired his views in the Sunderland Echo yesterday.

First, let’s start by defining “public library.”

This definition from The Straight Dope seems like a good place to start.

Presumably we mean a library that:

  1. Is publicly owned and supported by taxes;
  2. Is open to any citizen who desires to use it, and
  3. Contains a wide range of material, both popular and scholarly.

My guess is that while a private library might meet the third criteria, it would definitely not meet the

I’m trying to imagine the world Deary envisions, where public libraries are non-existent, and it seems like a rather dreary one. It was the world that existed more than a century ago, when books, culture, knowledge, education, etc., were for those few who could afford to pay for them.

Part of me thinks that Deary misses the point with his complaint that having libraries loaning out his books takes money out of his pocket.

But despite the negative reaction to his comments, the Horrible Histories author is adamant that the public attitude around libraries “has to change”. “People have to make the choice to buy books. People will happily buy a cinema ticket to see Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and expect to get the book for free. It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Books aren’t public property, and writers aren’t Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby. They’ve got to make a living. Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don’t expect to go to a food library to be fed.”

As one of the most popular library authors - his books were borrowed more than 500,000 times during 2011/12 - Deary will have received the maximum amount possible for a writer from the Public Lending Right scheme, which gives authors 6.2p every time one of their books is borrowed, up to a cap of £6,600. “If I sold the book I’d get 30p per book. I get six grand, and I should be getting £180,000. But never mind my selfish author perception - what about the bookshops? The libraries are doing nothing for the book industry. They give nothing back, whereas bookshops are selling the book, and the author and the publisher get paid, which is as it should be. What other entertainment do we expect to get for free?” he asked.

Bookshops are closing down, he said, “because someone is giving away the product they are trying to sell. What other industry creates a product and allows someone else to give it away, endlessly? The car industry would collapse if we went to car libraries for free use of Porsches ... Librarians are lovely people and libraries are lovely places, but they are damaging the book industry. They are putting bookshops out of business, and I’m afraid we have to look at what place they have in the 21st century.”

I wonder if Deary feels the same way about used bookstores, which as far as I know don’t pay royalties to authors. (Author only get royalties on first sales, as near as I can tell.) For that matter, how does he feel about the countless yard sales and garage sales where books are re-sold without a penny going to the author?

How does Deary feel about sites like Bookmooch, where readers exchange books with other readers, and the only money involved is what’s spend on postage? Or sites like BookCrossing, where users track books that they have labeled and “released into the wild,” to be found by others who may then log their “found books” on the site? Are these sites also robbing Deary and other authors of potential paying readers?

There are a few things Deary isn’t taking into consideration.

First, he’s assuming that every single one of the people checking out copies of his books from their local libraries would buy his books if there were no public libraries to lend them. But, as library supporters have pointed out in response to Deary’s remarks, families who use libraries are often those who can’t afford to buy books. Thus the library is the only place they’re likely to be able to get their hands on the works of authors like Deary.

Miller Avenue Abandoned LibraryTerry Deary has at least put the nail in the coffin that authors who support libraries are merely being selfish by claiming that libraries hurt authors and how he's out of pocket because of their existence. Perhaps the answer to his question "Why are all the authors coming out in support of libraries when libraries are cutting their throats and slashing their purses?" is that other authors are not being as nakedly and shortsightedly selfish.

Those authors in favour of libraries (see here for a list), especially those of children fiction like (but also so unlike) Deary are aware that most of the population with a reading habit cannot afford to buy everything that they want to buy and that limiting access to those with an ability to pay severely detriments literacy and so the future success of the country. This is especially the case with children who may be effectively barred from reading outside of school if their parents cannot afford to pay. Such children of course would not be able to buy Horrible Histories and thus he is not out of pocket. In fact, he's gaining on the deal as the library is buying a copy of his work which the poorest child would not be able to afford. For those more in the money, the library serves to introduce them to the books and to get them hooked so they'd be more likely to buy them. So, Terry wins again. His argument against "something for nothing" therefore is revealed into what it really is - an author wanting to charge highly for his cake and to be able to eat it too.

It’s more likely that Deary wouldn’t sell any more books if all public libraries shut down, especially given that more and more bookstores are closing due to the recession, and libraries are having to take up the slack. Plus, as the piece quoted above points out, the library is a relatively low-risk way for people who can afford to buy books to discover new authors whose books they will buy in the future. The end of public libraries might not mean more sales for Deary, but actually fewer readers and fewer sales.

The same was said years ago when the music industry was struggling with the same issues of intellectual property v. technological realities. The publishers don’t like ebooks and e-readers anymore than record companies liked MP3 players. But the inevitable could only be put off for so long.

I always thought that what’s true about books was probably much the same as what was true about music-sharing: people who shared or downloaded music online are may be more likely to buy music. It turns out that numerous studies back up this assumption. A Norwegian study in 2009 found that those who downloaded music from pirate or file-sharing sites were 10 times more likely to pay for music. Another, more recent study showed that file-sharers were 30% more likely to purchase music legally than non-file sharers.

The analogy to libraries is not perfect. But Deary’s concern, and those of the publishing industry, are pretty similar to those expressed by the music and movie industries. And, when it comes to books, there are fewer and fewer places to buy book, as the recession causes bookstores to close.

If Deary had his way, there would be fewer libraries where people could go to borrow or share books. That leaves piracy, which is already happening in places where there are no libraries and few bookstores.

Empty libraryA couple of years ago, after a reading in Karachi, I told off a young man who was asking me to sign a pirated copy of one of my books. Piracy is destroying publishing in Pakistan, I told him. He said he understood but added that because pirated books are cheaper he could buy more of them. It's not as if Karachi is filled with public libraries, he said.

A few weeks later, back in London, I walked into my local library and felt immensely grateful for how easily available books were -- crime-free. I had no idea then of the crisis facing British libraries (pdf). Over the last year or two, you'd have had to be living under several rocks not to notice.

The part of North London I live in borders the council of Brent, now the site of an intense legal battle to save local libraries that has become the vanguard for similar efforts around the country. On Dec. 29, police officers held back protestors outside Preston Library while local government officials removed all its books, impervious to the nearby poster of Santa, a speech bubble over his head saying "Don't rely on me; give kids their books back." Since April 2011, 423 libraries have either closed down or been slated for closure -- that's almost 10 percent of all libraries in Britain.

Deary’s comments were made in the context of an austerity program that is shrinking Britain’s economy, and potentially pushing the country into a “lost decade”. The “hard choices” supposedly made necessary by austerity include closing public libraries.

What about here at home? We’ve thus far eluded the kind of enforced austerity that even the IMF now admits has devastated economies in Europe. But we’ve had plenty of “de facto austerity”, and the impact on public libraries here at home has been pretty bad, and is bound to get worse if we continue down the same road as Britain.

The crisis and closure of public libraries is only a symptom however, of a bigger problem. Austerity doesn’t merely close down libraries. First it kills off that which made them possible and has sustained them thus far. And that has implications far beyond card catalogs and bookshelves.


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