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.