Thursday, March 06, 2008

The missing page

Just heard Margaret Hodge, Minister for Culture, on Front Row talking about how our public libraries could learn a thing or two from Borders or Waterstones - and using the expression "wanna" rather more than I'd like a Minister of the Crown to do.
She reckons that if they installed an espresso machine, introduced 24 hour opening and had an online ordering service then things would be better. Can we take that as a tacit acceptance that public libraries currently have tumbleweed blowing through them and it's about time the public and the government had a grown up debate about what part - if any - they should play in the national life? She's seen people buying three for two on Oxford Street in a highly engineered retail environment and wants to know why we can't have that vibe in East Cheam's public libraries. Dear God.
Do these children believe what's in their latest press release? Nobody will utter the truth. Knee jerk defence of the public libraries is at its strongest amongst people who would never dream of using them. Libraries flourished in an era when people couldn't afford books even if they could find them. That's not true anymore. The only way that councils can get any footfall in the places at all is by promoting the DVD section, which fulfils very little cultural/educational purpose. I couldn't believe it when I was working in the West End a few years ago and the mobile library would park up at lunchtime in order to make sure that office workers IN THE WEST END OF LONDON could borrow the new Tom Cruise.
Dickens must be spinning.


  1. Having hardly set foot in a library for more than 10 years, we've become weekly visitors since moving to Scotland. Why? The kids.
    Our eldest daughter (6 and a half) is getting through 5-6 books a week, so the library is the only way that we can avoid being overrun with books about fairies, Enid Blyton mysteries and Doctor Who quiz titles.

  2. I'm not sure if you're saying we don't need to bother with libraries any more because people can afford to buy books these days, or, we shouldn't bother supporting libraries because all they are is subsidised DVD rental outlets?

    Either way, I use mine regularly and it always seems to be pretty full of people borrowing books.

  3. Warwickshire libraries have online ordering. Don't everyone's?

    (Yeah, yeah, what they don't have is 'customers who borrowed this also borrowed', and, well, a highly refined retail experience)

  4. Anonymous10:20 pm

    Libraries perform an essential function in areas that don't have a Waterstones or Borders within striking distance - ie. a significant part of the country outside of London.

    Children love them, and they're also a vital lifeline to the millions of people who simply can't afford to buy books on a regular basis - if ever. Not all the poor proles watch culturally negligible DVDs, you know.... and you can order, extend your loan and check availability online.

    The real problem is that we live in a culture where possession has become the be all and end all, and so borrowing books has come to be regarded as somehow unfashionable and outmoded. But plenty of people still do it.

    Look at it rationally and you'll see it's by far the most sensible and effective way to extend your reading habits.

  5. Anonymous10:37 pm

    Yes, with the greatest of respect, this blog post sounds like the ramblings of an over-monied London meeja tosspot. All your mates might be "fifty pound man", but I and plenty of my mates aren't.

  6. The number of books borrowed from British libraries has declined 34 per cent in the last ten years according to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. More than £1.8 billion was spent on buying books last year, a 6.2 per cent increase. And this in a time when the retail price of a book is falling so fast that booksellers have to package up three for two to make any money.

  7. Just because books are 'cheaper than ever' doesn't mean everyone can afford to buy everything they might want to read. Especially, as Anon pointed out, if they might want to extend their reading habits.

    Are you REALLY saying people should only be able to read what they can afford to buy?

  8. I have read this again carefully and I have failed to spot the bit where I say that the public library system should be closed down. However, neither of the remedies that I've heard so far - leaving things as they are and Margaret Hodge's "have a Latte" - seem to confront the basic statistical evidence that borrowing books is declining very steeply indeed and buying books is growing. Nobody can deny that the spread of cheap paperbacks, Amazon, Amazon marketplace, mega retailers and Google have had a profound effect on our attitude to accessing books and the things in them. The future may be fewer, better libraries. I'm not an expert but even I can tell that the experts are very worried indeed.

  9. Anonymous7:29 am

    I’m sure you meant to start a hare with this, David, and I’m equally confident that you won’t be disappointed. In the first two paras I assumed you were going to demolish Hodge’s argument, but then in the third you lay into libraries instead, along with another swipe at politicians (that is a very peculiar deployment of the word ‘children’) before stating the ‘truth’ as you see it.
    Let’s see.
    ‘Knee jerk defence of the public libraries is at its strongest amongst people who would never dream of using them.’ Rubbish. (Unless my case here doesn’t count because it is considered rather than knee-jerk.) I use mine every week and suggest you do the same.
    ‘Libraries flourished in an era when people couldn't afford books even if they could find them. That's not true anymore.’ Rubbish. Books are still £7-8 for a paperback, a considerable investment for many people. In particular, visit your library a go to the children’s section. You will see parents with young children borrowing arm-loads of picture flats which would cost £5+ each and will be read once or twice. What those parents are doing., either deliberately or because the library provides free entertainment, is helping to give their children a love of books which should last them a lifetime. Then visit any other section – you will find me and many like me choosing books on whim, discovering new writers because we like the jacket and generally taking a punt of literature we wouldn’t have gambled our money on buying. Tax-funded access to books through libraries is an undeniable public good.
    ‘The only way that councils can get any footfall in the places at all is by promoting the DVD section’. Rubbish. In my local library I guess about 5% of the floor-space is given over to DVDs and CDs. Bad marketing if that is the only way they can drive footfall. And there is nothing wrong with libraries promoting DVDs (or books for that matter) which exist for entertainment rather than ‘cultural/education purpose’ as you put it with such patrician disdain.
    ‘Dickens must be spinning.’ Rubbish. Dickens would be turning cartwheels, coffin space allowing, to know that there was free access to books, including his own, as well as other forms of entertainment (yes, yes, and culture and education) which he could not have imagined existing. I doubt he would have nodded his head reading this Gradgrindian philosophy.
    I’ll sign myself of as Ken, because that’s my name. On the Word website I used the handle Gatz. It’s a nod to The Great Gatsby, one of my favourite books since I first read it when I was 14. At the time I had barely heard of Fitzgerald and certainly wouldn’t have risked valuable pocket money taking a chance on a new book. So guess where I found it?

  10. 34% in ten years.
    That's worse than the record business.

  11. As an author, I'm often called upon to give talks in libraries and I've always been pleasantly surprised how well-equipped and modern they are. I'm happy to name some names: Kingsthorpe Library in Northampton (not in the centre of town, and quite near to an independent bookshop that has recently closed down), Weston Favell Library in Northampton (also in the suburbs), Billericay Library, Willesden Green Library in London ... Although I am one of those people with income disposable enough to buy books, if I had kids I'm sure I'd feel differently, and if we use the same argument against libraries against other beleagured aspect of the public sector, we may aswell privatise the hospitals and schools too. And close down the post offices (whose business is probably down by the same percentage as the borrowing in libraries). Oh, we are doing those things already?

    For once, Dave, I fear you are on your own!

  12. Now it's "privatise"! Don't think I said either.
    34% in ten years. At that rate of decline in another ten years libraries will be among the most specialised service that councils provide.
    I just want to hear a credible plan for justifying that spend in the future and as yet I haven't.

  13. But that's 34% of how many? I don't have stats in front of me, but whenever I go to my local libary, it's fairly buzzing -- to the extent that if it was three times as busy, it would be overcrowded.

    Possibly that's because I always go on a weekend. I can imagine the place being pretty empty on a weekday, because people work, or go to school.

    Evening opening (as suggested by Hodges) would help with this. The same argument applies to the high street butchers etc. who complain that supermarkets are taking their custom.

  14. Books are dirt cheap on amazon less than a quid for 2nd hand paperbacks, so once you take parking fees etc/bus fair for remote users in account there's not much differnce in price for free at source books from the library. Also I genrally buy my books second hand. We do need to decide waht to do with libraries if they are to have future.

  15. Anonymous12:27 pm

    Here's what demolishes your argument; space. My 2008 resolution was to use the library instead of the bookshops. Why? My living space is probably about the size of your attic and I've had to fill a garage lock-up with books, records, CDs etc. I bet I'm not alone in this predicament. I can't see my plot of land expanding, but I don't want my brain to shrink, so using the libraries is the compromise. Besides, its the likes of us who can subtly engineer good taste by requesting informed choices instead of leaving it in the hands of some procurement bod in County Hall who's inclined to fill their catchment area with James Pattisons, Jacqueline Wilsons and Boo-Fucking-Hoo books.

  16. David, this is a complex issue which, fortunately, has been discussed in depth on the excellent Good Library Blog, which was started a couple of years ago by Tim Coates, former MD of Waterstone's. I'd strongly advise anyone interested to go along to , and read the archives. One trap you fell into was to cite the 34 percent decline in borrowing rate over a 10-year period, alongside a 6.2 percent increase in bookstock spend in a one-year period. Any fule kno you should cite comparison statistics from the *same* timeperiod, if they're to be of any use in drawing conclusions. Sloppy, David. For instance, in February Hampshire county council announced an increase in libraries book spend of 350 thousand pounds, but over the preceding ten years had progressively *decreased* its annual bookspend. So placed side-by-side, over the same ten year period, we'd see a *reduction* in spend accompanying the decline in borrowing rates. Anyway, read the blog - no point in rehashing it here.

  17. I'd like to know more about that 34% drop in ten years. I mean, is it a steady decline or was there a collapse after, say, the supermarkets starting stocking the bestsellers which has since bottomed out? What does the overall trend look like?

    Also, what does that 34% constitute? Is the same drop for all types of books, or again, is the fact that you can buy the celeb bios and boo-fucking-hoo memoirs at Tescos cheaply mean that they're taking up a disproportionate part of the whole?

    My point is, different problems will have different solutions.

  18. My local library was knocked down and rebuilt a couple of years ago. It was a fairly tatty pre-fab and is now the ground floor of a block of Macarthy & Stone retirement flats. While the rebuilding was being done the stock was housed and lent (on an honesty box basis) at the local railway station (a 20 minute commute to Waterloo on which lots of books are read) and - bizarrely - the local pub. Business was brisk. It also triggered, at the station, one of those informal drop and dip schemes whereby people leave books that they’ve finished with (i.e. they’ve read and enjoyed them, but don’t necessarily want them cluttering up the house for the rest of time) for others to pick up and subsequently hand on.
    The library is well-stocked and has one of those “staff pick” tables near the entrance. Unlike the ones in Borders and Waterstones which, as we all know, are paid-for-by-publishers advertising space, they are genuine recommendations from keen readers to others.
    The library seem to do pretty brisk business. There was no tumbledweed blowing through it last time I looked.It is online and boasts a fleet of computers with competititvely-priced internet access. It caters to people who can’t necessarily afford to drop £50 at Borders on a whim or a hunch without batting an eyelid and for whom a computer with broadband account is an expensive luxury beyond their reach.
    It is the hub of the local council Adult Education programme which offers a wide range of courses - Literacy, Jujitsu, Computer Skills, Swahili that sort of thing - that are either free or heavily subsidised.
    Its notice-board is the best place I know to find a local electrician or palm off a redundant lawnmower.
    Its staff are friendly, well-informed and helpful. What they do may be largely mundane and routine, but they understand that it is, in a small way, of great importance and value. They aren’t stupid enough not to have noticed that they hire out Four Weddings & A Funeral more often than they check out Moby Dick, but there are still areas of public life where “footfall” isn’t the be-all-and-end-all.
    In an age when the debate about how the education system should be run still revolves around how to help, encourage and service the needs of potentially bright kids who don’t come from middle-class book-lined homes, libraries matter. In a way that the neighbouring “heavily engineered retail environments” flogging over-priced coffe and buns don’t.
    Perhaps it is time for a “grown-up debate”. But instead of it being about the library service, which is perfectly capable of looking after itself, perhaps it should be about the alarming disconnection between the values and life experiences of idiotic politicians (not to mention - with due and sincere respect - smart alec, well-heeled, media professionals) and people who live in the real world.

  19. Cheap books from Waterstones are not the antidote to libraries.

    Most books are only worth reading once, if at all, and you really don't want to clutter up your house with all that paper. Better to read and return.

    It's the eco-friendly choice. And bear in mind too that even cheap books cost some money and not all of us are in the luxurious position of being sent tempting titles by PRs every week.

  20. Right, job done, let's save the post offices now.

  21. Bit late for that I fear Andrew. And anyway it’s much more important to spend billions of pounds propping up a bust building society run by a bunch incompetent spivs. I’m sure the branch in the House of Commons will survive though.