ghostbusters_library1Yesterday there was an article about Horrible Histories author Terry Deary on the Guardian books page, in which he was quoted as saying that libraries are effectively past it. I disagree with that view, and wanted to address some of his points. You can read the article here if you haven’t seen it yet. His original comments are in the Sunderland Echo.

He was not attacking libraries themselves, but the founding concept of libraries – namely that people should have free access to books. This is on the grounds

“this is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that.”

There is so much wrong with that statement.

  1. Impoverished children, schooled or not, still don’t have much access to literature except from libraries. School libraries are by no means exhaustive, because they don’t have the space or resources to make it so, and I don’t have the impression poorer kids get given books as gifts either. Case in point – when I worked for the public library service, I took a bunch of kids and parents to a book shop in town as part of a reading initiative. Almost none of the children involved had ever set foot in a book shop, and one asked me when he would have to return the books he picked up there – the idea of book ownership was alien to him. Without the library, and the reading scheme, it probably would have remained so.
  2. What about impoverished everyone else? Britain’s 2 million unemployed, for instance? Try finding the cash to pay for a new book when you’re scraping by on Job Seeker’s Allowance. I never could.
  3. What about other factors, like mobility? If you are elderly or infirm, you can probably access a mobile library or book run to give you some respite from your own four walls. But apparently people should not feel entitled to this kind of service, because…

Well because it’s not fair on writers, apparently. Mr Deary is quoted as saying,

“Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don’t expect to go to a food library to be fed.”

Someone hasn’t been keeping up to date with the news about hundreds of people turning to food banks, apparently. He goes on to say,

“what about the bookshops? The libraries are doing nothing for the book industry. They give nothing back, whereas bookshops are selling the book, and the author and the publisher get paid, which is as it should be.”

  1. Libraries do give something back, quite a lot in fact. There are developmental benefits, social benefits, the opportunity to access information for everyone. I wonder whether Terry has actually been in a library lately – the sheer scope of activity that happens in there is overwhelming. Libraries offer computer and social media classes, craft activities, youth work sessions with hard to reach kids, help with homework and job applications, and tons more – the borrowing of books is actually pretty secondary.
  2. Libraries and bookshops have coexisted perfectly fine for decades (the oldest bookshop in London, for instance, pre-dates the first UK public library by a century, and yet both still exist).  The problem the industry seem to have been failing to deal with is technology – first in the form of online shopping, because sellers could afford to sell books much cheaper, and now in the form of eBooks which are cheaper to produce than hard copies.

He goes on to ask,

“What other entertainment do we expect to get for free?”

We don’t expect this service for free – that’s why we pay taxes. I would cheerfully pay more tax if I knew the money was going towards supporting an important service like giving kids (and indeed adults, be they poor, housebound, bored or just so into books they can’t afford to buy as many as they’d like) the opportunity to read – although I appreciate I may be in the minority there.

Authors like Terry (ie popular ones) receive a small lending fee from having their books in libraries which isn’t as much as they’d get from someone buying their book in a shop, which is one of his bones of contention. But from my own experience, getting to try before I buy makes me more inclined to fork out cash for the rest of the author’s stuff – whether I borrow from a library or a friend. I borrowed Half of a Yellow Sun from my mum, I bought Purple Hibiscus.  I borrowed The House of Spirits from my High School library and have since bought almost all of Isabel Allende’s back catalogue. I could go on.

As to the suggestion you don’t expect other entertainment for free, that isn’t true.  Most newspapers are available for free online, and you can try music before you buy it by listening to a single on the radio or streaming from the internet before you fork out for a full album – which is down to technology, not libraries.

He also criticises the sentimentality around the library debate, but fails to pinpoint why a sentimental attachment to libraries is a bad thing – other than to say to the Echo

“The book is old technology and we have to move on.”

Of course, the library service reached that conclusion ages ago. They’ve been looking for ways to address it for years, by adapting new technologies and teaching people how to use them, being more interactive by hosting classes and community events, by trying to respond to social need rather than maintaining a blinkered ‘stay quiet, get your books, go’ mentality.

And that, actually, is the problem with the sentimentality around libraries. Many supporters of libraries speak about them with warm remembrance of a quiet sanctuary where they would go to read – but a modern library is loud and chaotic and colourful, not to mention full of disparate social groups that rub each other up the wrong way. You’re as likely to use your card to book a computer game as to take out a book, and you won’t necessarily get peace to browse the shelves because there’ll probably be a crowd of singing toddlers or teenagers arguing per whose go it is on the playstation. Some people find this intimidating, whilst many others have no idea its even happening, or of the volume of free information within their reach. Nevertheless, the times they are a changing – just like Terry Deary says they should. The passage of time, though, doesn’t make a 150 year old institution defunct. Not if it can keep evolving.


Slightly ironically, when I was a kid I didn’t borrow Terry Deary’s books from the library, I asked people to buy me copies because I wanted to own them. Vile Victorians, I felt, was worth the money.

Libraries are worth it, too.

vile victorians