I've been thinking a lot about libraries recently. When I was a child I was taken to a library every two weeks and made to check out the maximum allowance of books - that's what having an English teacher for a mother gets you!
Once I went to university, I stopped going to the library. Even university libraries are pretty poor for computer science books - and the ability to buy cheap paperbacks online obliterated my need to visit them. It wasn't until Surrey libraries started offering digital borrowing that I even thought about my local library. Nowadays, I'm found there once a week teaching computer programming to kids.
The popular children’s-author Terry Deary says that libraries are obsolete and, in these times of austerity, we shouldn't feel bad about them closing down.
Naturally, this has outraged both traditional and progressive authors.
Even regular people seem to think that libraries ought to be preserved.
(I've picked those two statuses more-or-less at random, there are thousands of people who tweeted Neil about this.)
What it comes down to is asking "what is a library for?"
When I've expressed the opinion that high-street shopping needs to die off, someone always says to me "But old folk like going out shopping - it's their only chance to interact and chat with people."
The is a skeuomorph solution. We're keeping alive a vestigial part of society when really, we ought to be re-engineering it. We wouldn't say "electric car engines should be designed in such a way that they should be started by hand cranks and towed by horses," would we?
The solution for pensioners' social lives isn't necessarily coupled with a retail experience - we should have decent care, community centres, and services which meet people's needs.
It's exactly the same with libraries.
Last month, I wrote about the proper use of the library. It's no longer solely about borrowing books or looking up back issues of periodicals. It's about the Internet, a community meeting space, a learning environment. Being the rampant egotist that I am, I'll quote myself:
The proper use of a library is a space where people can feel safe and enjoy free access to culture.
Let me spell it out simply. Lending books is not what a library is for any more.
We need to decouple the idea of book loans from that of a library. All those people who say that their library is used for events, for poetry readings, for toodlers, for accessing the web, and for teaching kids to code - they're not talking about a building for book lending, they're talking about a community centre.
For readers and authors who are worried about people not discovering new books, or being unable to take a chance on a new author or genre, the ability for a random small town library to carry a specific book is vastly inferior to an author giving away free copies on their website.
Amazon is full of authors allowing their books to be downloaded for free (or at extremely low cost) in the hope that the reader will be sufficiently interested to buy the next book in the series.
Rethinking The Library
What would happen if we shut down all the libraries and gave everyone in the UK a Kindle?
(Aside from massive protests!)
Here's some back of the envelope calculation...
Unison have produced an excellent pamphlet about library provisions in the UK. In it, they estimate that the total expenditure on UK libraries in 2006 was £1,063,120,000.
A billion quid plus change. I assume that covers buying books, staffing, buildings, etc.
The Public Lending Right in the UK means that authors get paid when their book is borrowed from the library (6.2p per borrow, to a maximum of £6,600).
According to the PLR, the total cost of this was £7.6 million in 2006.
That's roughly 122,580,000 library borrows per year - a little over two per person.
I'm unsure if the £1 billion figure includes the PLR's £7.6 million - but let's say it does to err on the side of caution.
A basic eReader's cost ranges from £60 for a Kobo, to £70 for a Kindle, to £80 for a Nook. Let's assume that technology gets cheaper, that eReaders are treated like books for VAT purposes (0% rather than 20%), and economies of scale means that prices drop.
It's not a stretch of the imagination to say that next year a basic e-ink ereader could cost no more than £30.
Indeed - the Txtr beagle eReader costs a mere £8. Yes, eight.
The billion pound yearly library budget costs roughly £20 per person per year.
So, dissolve all the libraries. Give everyone in the UK a voucher good for £30 off a qualifying eReader (you can buy the cheap as chips version or pay extra to get the Kindle HD Super Max Plus if you want).
With the remainder of the money, continue the Public Lending Scheme but tie it to a national digital library.
You can either borrow a book - in which case the state will pay the author.
You can download a public domain books - for free.
Authors can sell their books for whatever price they choose - or give them away.
Who loses? Every person - not just children - gets fast access to infinite knowledge, authors get exposure and get paid, vast sums of public money are saved, and we can use the remainder of the money to digitize our archives.
The physical buildings which house books can be converted into community centres, meeting places, Internet hubs - without the need to store books and insist on silence.
Rip, Mix, Burn
I don't mean we should literally set fire to libraries - nor their book collections.
The idea is simple. Rip the music out of your CDs or vynil and convert them to digital information, mix them up to create new things, burn the new tracks into the world.
And that's exactly what is needed with libraries. Rip the analogue books to digital formats, remix the services so they're more useful to people, burn the new way of experiencing culture into society.