Myth busting

This comment was left on a Public Libraries News post on 13th September 2011:

“The only surprise is that public libraries have survived for so long. Books are cheap, information is widely available on the internet. Libraries offer poor service- bad opening hours, poor quality buildings – their only selling point is that they are free! Yes – they offer community space, IT and are valued by users; but most of the population are not users. If we have to chose between healthcare and libraries I know which I would choose!”

This argument neatly sums up many of the arguments against libraries. So neatly in fact, that before I explain the counter-arguments, one should assure everyone that it was not a plant.

Books are cheap”

Cheap is relative. A ten-year old child who reads five books a week (I see this frequently) could not do so in all but the richest homes without libraries. The same for a senior citizen who reads ten books a week because they are alone and cannot afford to do anything else. The same for mum who gets six picture books out for their toddler. “Cheap” is “cheap” only when there is enough money spare.

“Information is widely available on the internet”

One has to both be able to afford the internet and be able to use it. 23% of the population would not have access without libraries, likely the same one-fifth that needs the information the most. Also, while we’re on the subject, here’s ten reasons why the internet does not replace libraries.

“Libraries offer poor service”

Some of them do, and the staff need retraining or even replacement if all else fails. Some banks offer poor service too, as do some hospitals. If staff are well-trained and paid enough to attract good people then they should offer excellent service. If they don’t, the management need to sort it out and there should be systems in place to ensure that they do so. However, it is precisely this training and the pay that is being attacked at the moment.

“Bad opening hours”

We do indeed need to increase opening hours in many branches, good point. Opening hours are being cut due to lack of funding, not being expanded. Opening hours should be extended, not cut. Where branches have long opening hours, they are well used. Branches with tiny opening hours (15 hours a week, 10 hours a week) are effectively being closed one hour at a time. This needs to be reversed.

“Poor quality buildings”

There are many poor quality buildings. The answer is to improve them, not close them. If a well-used road is in poor condition, one does not permanently close the road.

“Yes – they offer community space, IT and are valued by users”

That’s actually quite a lot reasons not to close them, thank you. Just on community space, though:

“The government and the council forget that people live in places like Walney. When they close the post offices, the clubs and the libraries, then the local people lose meeting places.” (Sally Whittaker, 97 years old, Cumbria).

“Their only selling point is they are free!”

They are indeed free. The sentence seems to suggest that everything should be based on the ability to pay. This does not currently reflect thinking in other parts of the system such as healthcare or education (or defence?). It is indeed a unique selling point of public libraries that they exist to educate, inform and serve those without the ability to pay. Other selling points include professional assistance, community spaces, neutrality, help in job-hunting, training, boosting literacy and life-long prospects.

“Anti-poverty campaigner Sam Roddick, who founded Coco de Mer, said: “Cutting the libraries is cutting the poor from the little they have. It will damn our country into the kind of poverty you see in third world countries.” (London Evening Standard, 12th April 2011)

“Most of the population are not users”

40% of the population use libraries. So, not a majority, true. But two-fifths using an institution that the commenter clearly thinks has no use? Seems strange. Two-fifths, voluntarily and without any national promotion for as long as most people can remember? Not bad for something that has been ignored by those in power for years.

” If we have to chose between healthcare and libraries I know which I would choose!”

Four things here:

  • Libraries are not for everyone at every point of their lives. Neither are state schools. Neither is the M1 motorway. Neither is a general hospital. If one can afford all the books and IT access one needs then don’t come in. You’re a busy person with enough money, good for you. But, like schools, like the M1 and like the general hospital, libraries are there if any of that changes. This idea is called a safety net and it’s what a Western society is based on. Still.
  • Don’t compare Libraries with healthcare as if they are on the same scale.. Libraries cost £1 billion per year, the NHS receives more than £100 billion. In fact, the sad truth is that cutting expenditure on libraries achieves very little for councils – they’re only 1% of their budget – at maximum impact to the public.
  • Who said libraries weren’t also healthcare anyway? I have had one gentleman tell me, over the counter, that he would quietly commit suicide if the library closed. Libraries provide an support for many of the most vulnerable in society (the housebound, the lonely) and, remember, we are lucky if we are not vulnerable at some point in our lives. The shelves are often scoured for books on health conditions, or dieting, or on keeping fit. Libraries even work closely with the NHS on such things as “Books on Prescription” and with such groups as MIND with mental health reading groups.



The point here is that there are a lot of uninformed opinions about public libraries. This is not surprising given the lack of national leadership over the decades and the lack of any national marketing or significant debate (up until this year at least) in the media. Those who care about libraries thus need to inform opinion and provide the information. Or those people who see there being no point in libraries are going to win, because they’re the ones who are holding the purse strings and, often, are in government or in a council near you.

  • #1 written by Anouk Kahanov-Kloppert
    about 11 years ago

    I would like to support this campaign. Without the use of a free public library nearby my parental home, while I was at secondary school, I would probabely never gone on to study for a Musicology degree.
    I dread to think many children’s life will be affected as such and miss out on finding out what really interests them in life.

  • #2 written by Ralph Lloyd-Jones
    about 8 years ago

    Your naïve commentator may be interested to learn that our current rulers have chosen both Libraries and free universal Healthcare (the NHS) to be eliminated. It is undoubtedly the most right-wing government we have ever had and they are anxious to destroy every Socialist achievement in British society. It is ironical that they still call themselves ‘Conservative’, since they are in fact Revolutionary Capitalists restructuring the UK along American, rather than European social democratic lines. Most of the people who write about the destruction of our Library services, both for and against, have little idea of what libraries are really about. Where they survive, quite apart from providing free access to the sum total of human knowledge, they are the most important community centre for those who most need them: the elderly, the poor, the dispossessed, children, students, migrants, etc., etc. But those people don’t vote Tory, do they?

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