Leading article: Libraries can prosper - if they change

Friday 23 March 2012 01:00

The plan to allow the reading public to rent e-books, much as they rent movies, has proved so much more contentious than its pioneer, the former Waterstones managing director Tim Coates, had hoped.

That publishers are chary of the idea of his new Bilbary e-rental venture, which launched this week, is perhaps not entirely surprising: although the e-rentals automatically delete themselves when the borrowing time expires, they fear the scheme might harm sales.

Less controversial, however, is Mr Coates' generous pledge to donate a good chunk of Bilbary's profits to campaigns to keep open libraries threatened by government budget cuts. Hundreds of the nation's 4,000 public libraries are at risk; and campaigners' attempts to persuade courts and councils to keep them open are largely failing.

Closing libraries is inevitable, the argument goes, in an era when two out of three British homes have a computer. But that is far from the whole story. While 200 million books are sold every year, more than 310 million are borrowed. The one-in-three homes without a computer are those of the nation's poorer children, many of whom live without even a table at which they can do their homework. It is with only the mildest exaggeration that Alan Bennett, the playwright and campaigner, describes the closure of libraries as an act of "child abuse".

To some, the word library conjures only negative associations, an irrelevant anachronism in an increasingly digital world. But a good library is far more than just a place to store books. It is a gateway to knowledge, a place well able to adapt to the computer age and in doing so support the curiosity, study and research of new generations.

There are, of course, some libraries that are unfit for purpose. But those that use digital technologies as an aide, rather than treat them as a threat, more than hold true to their core purpose. And those that have made the leap are seeing visitor numbers rise, not fall. Britain's libraries do not need closing but they may need changing. We can only hope that Mr Coates' support can help many of them to do so.

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