Subsidised entertainment for the middle classes

POLEMIC Public libraries are relics of a bygone age, argues Madsen Pirie

Share
Related Topics
The great Victorian steam laundries of Edinburgh were resplendent with their copper pipes and gleaming machinery. They were where the poor could go to clean their clothes cheaply. Nearly a century later they were still there, trapped in a time-warp. Around them were coin-operated laundrettes on street corners, and washing machines in most homes; yet the steamies remained, protected by a diminishing coterie of devoted fans who liked to have their washing subsidised by the community.

As local authorities face the squeeze, the talk has been of library cutbacks; but no one has raised the question of whether public libraries as we know them have any useful role in the modern world. They are, for the most part, the institutions of the past century, when they were seen as a means of bringing literacy to the masses. What they supply to a middle-class clientle is entertainment. The overwhelming majority of borrowings are of popular fiction or do-it-yourself books. The claim has always been that Len Deighton is justified if he leads readers on to Dickens and Dostoevsky, but there is no evidence to suggest that devotees of pulp fiction ever rise above the genre.

Several developments have left the libraries marooned without a purpose. The most significant is that books are cheaper. The paperback revolution started by Penguin has brought an amazing wealth of literature, perennials as well as pot-boilers, within reach of most family budgets. The diminishing band who prefer to wait and borrow free rather than to buy, indicates that perhaps people find public libraries too much trouble. With cheap books everywhere, it is usually easier to buy.

The profit-making penny libraries were driven out of business by the rise of free lending, but their modern equivalents are thriving: they are the paperback shops that sell second-hand books and buy back at half price. They are found in many markets and high street outlets, and the astonishing thing is the range of books they offer. The dedicated reader can buy poetry and the classics as well as Catherine Cookson.

Another change from Victorian times is that many schools now have their own libraries to tempt children into the delights of reading.

Schools are increasingly able to offer computerised access to information, and the few already on the Internet will be joined by thousands more as they discover how easy it is to access books on screen. Even individual homes are more likely than ever to have high-technology information services available down line.

Meanwhile, public libraries complain about cuts. They could charge for books, as most now do for videos, records and tapes, but this is against the creed of free lending. They could economise, by employing less highly qualified administrators. They could, perhaps more usefully, ask whether their institutions are needed at all in their present form.

I have happy memories as a teenager of leaving a bicycle (unlocked) outside a public library while I spent afternoons lost in the magic world of books. Most people would, I imagine, hate to see that lost for today's teenagers, just as they would deplore the loss of facilities for those doing genuine research. But this is not what libraries are doing; they are providing free entertainment in outmoded, inefficient and expensive ways.

Perhaps it is time for them to ask just what education and information services are needed in modern times, and what sort of institutions would be appropriate to provide them. The odds are that they would come up with answers far removed from the Victorian relics we are left with.

The writer is president of the Adam Smith Institute

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £22500 per annum + OTE £30K: SThree: SThree Group have been well esta...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager - OTE £40,000

£28000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Contracts / Sales Administrator

£19500 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Knowledge of and ability to use...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Election catch-up: Just what the election needs – another superficially popular but foolish policy

John Rentoul
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to the super rich

Terence Blacker
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence