How relevance killed the public library

For fear of being branded elitist, British libraries have ruinously sacrificed silence and good books for cafés and DVDs.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

For the past few weeks, Britain’s literati and commentariat have been fretting over the future, and meaning, of public libraries.

For BBC Radio 4, journalist Quentin Letts travelled around the nation’s libraries in a bid to argue the case for their continued existence. Meanwhile the comedian and former English literature graduate, Frank Skinner, wrote that the extinction of public libraries is ‘long overdue’. ‘I love books,’ he said, ‘but I draw the line at old, large-print ones hiding previous borrowers’ diseases’. Jonathan Jones in the Guardian found ‘nothing funny’ in Skinner’s attack, seeing it as symptomatic of ‘diminished literacy’ in England furthered by an ‘anti-intellectual stream of thought’ that is rife in modern society.

This latest debate on the future of libraries has been fuelled by figures from the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) showing just how many – or rather, how few – adults have visited libraries and other cultural institutions over the past five years. In 2005, 16.4 per cent of adults attended their local library once a month. That figure dropped to 12.8 per cent by 2009.

This revelation, such as it is, is unlikely to stop the traffic. Since 2004 there has been annual handwringing about the poor state of England’s libraries, with under-investment in books and staff being top concerns. As a result, library watchers reckon that public book-lending will become extinct in a few years’ time. What does all this say about contemporary civic and intellectual life in Britain?

Some commentators argue that the latest figures are an attempt to soften the public up for swingeing cuts to libraries. The Liberal-Conservative coalition government has already used the decline of publicly funded libraries to promote its wonky and incoherent Big Society concept. So instead of local authorities stocking and running libraries, the Lib-Cons have suggested that volunteers from local communities do it themselves. In an act both philistine and patronising, the government has even suggested that book-lending services could operate in pubs and supermarkets. The irony here is that officialdom’s concerted war against pubs means that they are also going the same way as libraries. The suggestion that a local pub might lend us the latest Ian McEwan novel alongside a pint indicates that the government thinks we’re only interested in books if they come soaked in huge quantities of booze.

The coalition government may think of itself as a fresh antidote to the excesses of New Labour populism, but it’s clear that it is also influenced by the tyranny of relevance. You can hear the grey cogs working in culture minister Jeremy Hunt’s mind: millions of people shop at big supermarkets, ergo if we put a library next to the cooked meats section more people will read books. Amazing! Anyone who comes up with policy proposals as mind-boggingly banal as that one could do with spending more time in a library themselves. And this is just the latest in a long list of officialdom’s disgraceful moves against public book-lending.

For over 15 years, local authorities have done everything to suggest that silent reading in public spaces is an ‘incorrect’ use of individuals’ time. In case the austere image of libraries – all shushing and stern-faced librarians – proves too off-putting for people, the authorities rebranded them as Ideas Stores, Learning Resources Centres or Discovery Centres. In fact they are called anything that doesn’t imply they are institutions designed for reading books in silence. Professor Mark Hepworth said in a recent report on the future of libraries: ‘Books are not everything, and book-borrowing indicators should not be used as the prime measure of how libraries contribute to local and national priorities.’ No ambiguities there – books are overrated.

Libraries are now expected to morph into a café / jobcentre / crèche / council information kiosk and so on. This image change has been backed up by the physical removal of books altogether. Although some £1.1 billion is spent on libraries, only 10 per cent of it is spent on actual books. Computers, rental DVDs and CDs now take up the space where reference books used to be. Over the past 10 years, the number of books available for reference or lending has declined annually by 10 per cent. It is this decline in the quality of the book stock, rather than books being irrelevant to ordinary people, that has had such a crushing effect on the use of libraries.

It could be argued that because books are a lot cheaper today, people are more likely to buy them than borrow them. The internet has also made buying second-hand books an effort-free (not to mention less expensive) process. Bookish friends of mine have said they very rarely set foot in a library these days, preferring to buy and read books at home. All this is true enough – but it overlooks how in the past, too, cheap paperbacks were designed to overcome the problems of affordability; Penguin books in particular would often reissue classic novels and make them available for a mere pound. And people still went to libraries.

Nevertheless, as institutions, libraries are meant to rise above the vagaries of the market and exist as bastions of culture. When the library emerged as a public institution during the mid-nineteenth century, it was designed to improve the literacy and cultural standards of the masses. That is why romantic fiction and crime stories rarely made it on to public library shelves; libraries were seen as public spaces of self-improvement by those who ran them and those who used them. ‘Nothing is too good for the common man’ – that was the kind of ethos that guided the book-shelving policy of libraries during and after the period of the Industrial Revolution. Today ghost-written biographies of reality TV stars and the gangster bilge of Martina Cole populate the shelves.

The library establishment and local authorities make a big play on libraries being an active part of local communities. But they ignore the civic role that libraries once played in raising people’s expectations and establishing the standards of serious learning.

Libraries are designed to instil self-discipline, free from noisy distractions, and facilitate in-depth study. The formal, hushed world of the library used to denote the importance of study both for the individual and society. For anyone serious about politics, using a public library was an essential part of being a citizen. The failure of all three political parties to grasp this is symptomatic of how they themselves have become hollowed-out organisations incapable of, and completely uninterested in, engaging the public with serious ideas. For the contemporary political party, the extinction of book-lending public libraries probably can’t come quick enough.

The literati’s hostility towards officialdom’s contempt for public libraries is long overdue. Too often, those in positions of cultural influence are keen to display their commitment towards relevance and social inclusion, and to steer clear of anything that has a whiff of standards, excellence and, worst of all, elitism. Unfortunately, the modern-day fear of cultural elitism – the good kind – is ultimately why public libraries have been emptied of their content and of real relevance to people’s lives.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today