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Subsidised entertainment for the middle classes

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