Some things you just don’t criticise or question. Things like The Queen Mother (God Bless Her Memory); Motherhood and Apple Pie; and of course Public Lending Libraries. I can still remember the peace and quiet of public libraries that I used as a youngster in the fifties, and the slightly musty smell of the books. Public libraries exist in most places in the world and are widely regarded as an essential precondition for an educated and literate population.
One of the earliest public libraries was in our own East Midlands region. The Francis Trigge Chained Library of St. Wulfram’s Church, Grantham, Lincolnshire was founded in 1598 by the rector of nearby Welbourne. It’s estimated that by 1790, there were about six hundred rental and lending libraries in the UK, with a clientèle of some fifty thousand. The mid to late 18th century saw a virtual epidemic of feminine reading as novels became more and more popular, but the foundations of the modern public library system were laid by the 1850 Public Libraries Act, which formalised rate-payer funding.
So no one but an anti-intellectual brute would question the necessity for public libraries, would they? Well maybe they would. I’m going to stick my head over the parapet and suggest that maybe the best solution of 1850 needs a re-think 160 years on.
When libraries began, books were rare and expensive, and average wages were low. No average home was likely to buy any book, beyond (if they were lucky) a Family Bible. And generally speaking, apart from the rare travelling circus, and bear-baiting in the High Street, entertainment for the masses was hard to come by. Public libraries fulfilled a vital need. They provided access to reference books, to educational and improving books, and as novels became popular, access to entertainment. And for most people, they were virtually the only source of these things.
Compare today. Books are cheap. Even those on average or low incomes can afford a couple of paperbacks to read on the beach in Benidorm. I can almost hear the Librarians saying “Yes, but what about the Pensioners?”. Good question. But in my experience, charity shops, street fairs, village fêtes, country shows and car boot sales offer a huge range of titles, second hand, sometimes for as little as 10p. Books are cheap, and everyone can afford them.
Books are no longer the first source of reference. In the old days, door-to-door salesmen would try to sell the Encyclopædia Britannica to lower-middle-class families who could ill-afford it, with the improbable claim that it would transform the kiddies’ educational prospects. Now you can check any reference in seconds on Google, for nothing. My helpful observations above on the history of libraries are a case in point. No one needs libraries for reference.
Nor are books any more a primary source of entertainment. Let’s face it: these days most entertainment in the home is from television, or increasingly from the Internet. Anyone who can afford a TV or a computer can afford a few books, but mostly they prefer audio-visual.
But what, I hear you cry, about education? What about the needs of children and students? But of course almost all educational institutions have libraries appropriate to the special needs of their students. That’s important. But it’s not the primary task of public libraries. Isn’t it the case that children from homes with books do better at school than those from homes without books? Yes it is true (though we should be very careful about the direction of cause and effect). But this fact marks a failure of the library system. If books in the home drove academic performance, and if libraries provided books for those homes that would otherwise be without them, we should not see any difference between book-homes and non-book-homes. The fact that the problem exists demonstrates that libraries are failing to solve it.
My heretical conclusion is that in the internet age, libraries are nice to have, but in an age of financial austerity, they’re by no means essential. If it gets to be a choice between libraries and kidney dialysis, I’d rather fund dialysis.