Thursday, 13 January 2011

Solve the libraries' problems: close them all.

Please try to take a moment before you gasp in horror at my suggestion.  Maybe it looks reactionary, anti-intellectual, even an act of cultural vandalism.  But when did you last actually go to one of the public 'knowledge centres' formerly known as libraries?  And what do you expect to find there?
That's not a trick question.  Museums, Libraries and Archives' research, available as a rather plush .pdf here, acknowledges that most people expect and indeed want to find books there.  And indeed they will: although perhaps fewer than before, because libraries have also conceded to users' demands for more computers and, highly recommended by the MLA, coffee shops.  After all, you'd probably have to walk, oh, minutes from your library to find the nearest Costabucks.
Coffee shops aside, publicly available computers might seem at first sight a good idea.  But it's hard to argue that we really need them in an age when more and more people have the internet on the 'phones in their pockets - especially 'the young' whose name is used for emotional bolster in the libraries' apologetics.  The ultimate criterion for the value of libraries remains, as it should, the availability of books.  And this is precisely what I want to argue is no longer worth sustaining.
Books take space, which costs money.  They need to be housed in buildings with good heating and lighting and several staff.  They need transportation.  They can be stolen or lost.  They are made of an increasingly scarce natural resource.  The complexities of cataloguing, organising and distributing them requires considerable labour and expertise.  All these costs are charged to the taxpayer.
So here's my suggestion:  get rid of them.  Instead, invest the money in transferring as much of the fruits of human knowledge as possible to ebook format and make all of it available for free download or rental.  Then offer subsidised e-readers, something like the Amazon Kindle (which itself costs only £111 even at commercial rates) which can access this public database freely.  Already, the Gutenberg project offers over 30,000 books for free download, and Amazon some 165,000 for purchase at cheap rates.  The technology is already there: indeed, some libraries already offer ebooks for short-term loan.
The advantages should be obvious.  Ebooks require no physical storage and staffing to maintain them can be centralised into one office.  They cannot be lost or stolen, they are environmentally friendly, their cost of delivery over WiFi or 3G is relatively cheap, and once they are committed to digital format, they require no further cataloguing.  Their readers can carry thousands of them on one small, cheap device, and read them in whatever coffee shop they like.
We must not lose sight of the other facilities that libraries offer, of course, but many of these can be offered elsewhere.  Children's reading groups can be found in churches, nurseries or town halls, even bookshops.  Music and video is now widely available for free and legal download or streaming.  Librarians could still be employed to offer their research skills and information services in police-box style booths at a fraction of the cost of running a library.  The closure of libraries need not mean an end to efficient and personal public information services.
The overall effect of closing the libraries and investing in digital resources would not only reduce the burden on the taxpayer in both the short- and long-term, it would give greater access to a greater body of literature to a greater number of people, at any time of day and wherever they are - whether you are housebound through illness or too busy at work to get to the libraries within opening hours.  It can surely only be a good thing.

1 comment:

  1. Tom, perhaps a good reason is that not all have access nor could they reasonably access the internet (i.e. a very considerable number of older members of society). Upon the argument that they could be given access, this is rather complicated by the fact that the use of it is not only governed by provision but too effective reception, and not a few older persons are neither confident nor willing to do so.

    For those not without access and perhaps also without but willing to receive it, have you tried doing research with digital books?- several screens would be the order of the day, though rather impractical!- and my experience points to the fact that 'research' need not be the academic kind, but any that involves the search for facts, arguments and material, contained in the written form for various uses.

    The social function of libraries is also invaluable, for those who wish to get out of the house to find a quite place, there are few others in a community. Particularly for the most vulnerable. Some famous authors have stated that the local library was their 'out' and 'salvation' in this sense. Not to mention the innumerable non-famous who find a place of solace, learning, self-betterment and respite there.

    It is important to reflect on change, rather than to push it through due to particularities rather than a more nuanced and understanding view. This also represents a foundation with in a community. One could argue that churches should close and sold off, as worship should be conducted digitally or in homes, and bibles all burned and digitized. I'm not sure it would meet with the same reception and for several good reasons, however important parallels remain in existence.

    Furthermore, it's still not clear from a technical point of view how long data saving devices last. Books are perishable, though more is known about this. So libraries are important repositories.

    Several high-level curators have also stated that the use of digital media and for cross-referencing instead of books and meetings reduces the interaction and also the transmission of ideas, the growth of them and their development as people can more easily use and manipulate data rather than wisdom that former dynamics meant. I suppose Barth would have a good deal to say about that too.

    Best regards,