Burn The Libraries


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.

Apple launched its iMac and integrated CD writer with the slogan "Rip, Mix, Burn".
rip mix burn

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.

2 thoughts on “Burn The Libraries

  1. I'm actually really glad you wrote this because it's made me think.

    Maybe this is the way the world is going (he says fatalistically) but we're a long way away at the moment, thank goodness.

    The first thing I take issue with is the suggestion you're offering me an equivalent experience. You aren't. E-readers are rubbish. They're getting better but they are deeply unconvincing facsimiles of books, not even Stepford wives, more like something William Hartnell would defeat. It's not merely their soullessness, it's their inability to support basic reading tasks, like idly flicking through a magazine by feel because you know where the sections are.

    When you say "lending books is not what a library is for any more", of course you're half right. Libraries are about a whole suite of services; they have been for a long time. But one of them is lending books, millions of them every month by your own figures. I like books and I like borrowing them. You, as it happens, prefer to consume your media in other ways. That's fine. You're free to enjoy your scentless, shiny, e-ink experience as much as you like. It's a poor reason to deny me access to superior technology. I'm sure some people can't see the point of going to the cinema when they could stay home and watch a DVD. That's their loss too. (I'm ambivalent about opera but I don't mind it being subsidised.)

    But fundamentally I think, despite clearly thinking about this quite a bit, you've missed your own point. When you say in italics (as if, I have to say, they are a little hard of thinking) that those library enthusiasts are "talking about a community centre", you're quite wrong. One of us has a very backward idea of what libraries are for but, I fear that it seems to be you. (It's not surprising. You're not as young as you were and you've not been in one for some time). What they are talking about is a library . You sort of raised this in your previous post but you've gone down a bit of a rabbit hole. What you are describing doesn't happen anywhere else. It is what happens in a library. Take the library away and the behaviour (the browsing of various sorts, the talks by authors, the storytelling) doesn't shift somewhere else. It just stops. The reason for this is that library activity is not sustained by magic but by librarians and funnily enough they're not present in other places. You are seeing effect without cause: the two things are not two things to be decoupled, they are one.

    I know you know that a library is not primarily a collection of books but you've not grasped what it is more than that. Which is odd, since you're helping to make it through your (I've no doubt, having seen you present) extremely excellent teaching. As a rampant egotist, why would you exchange your good self for a small screen? I'm afraid you're part of it now; that library experience. Don't sell it short just because it seems too good to be true: you really are what libraries are (somewhat) all about.

  2. Given that community centre's are losing funding, we end up with thousands of (sometimes) beautiful buildings going to ruin.

    Also, what about the people who go to the library because it is a place to browse and read books outside their own homes. I pity the children whose parents sell their ereaders and they lose any opportunity to experience books. Remember Matilda!

    I agree with many of your thoughts in other posts, but on this one I think you are wrong.

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