Liberal whingers are wrong – we should shut our libraries

The article below appeared in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph. It is written by John McTernan – former Political Secretary to Tony Blair and a high profile Labour Party moderniser.  We republish it here in case any of our readers were unfortunate enough to have missed it.  Feel free to circulate widely.

Middle class whingers gather in library

LIBERAL WHINGERS ARE WRONG – WE SHOULD SHUT OUR LIBRARIES by JOHN McTERNAN

When did you last go to a public library? No, really, when? It’s probably a good few years – and if so, you’re not alone. From one year to the next, nearly 60 per cent of us don’t go to libraries at all. In fact, fewer than one in five adults in England go more than once a month.

The news that councils are closing libraries has prompted sickly and sentimental pleas from all corners of the nation: a long and star-studded campaign to stop Brent Council closing six of them is now set to go to the Court of Appeal. No less a figure than Brian Blessed recently described such closures as the “act of Philistines… atavistic nonsense… the nemesis of our country”.

In one sense, this is a phenomenon familiar to anyone who’s ever had to cut public services: people will fight to the death to protect things they never use. But there’s something bigger going on here. This is a fight by middle-class liberals to keep libraries open not for themselves, but for the less fortunate. This is partly out of condescension, and partly guilt – because the protesters don’t use libraries either, and feel they may have precipitated the closures by their neglect.

What this debate needs is some honesty. Yes, public libraries have been of huge benefit in helping us educate ourselves over the past 150 years. It’s an honourable tradition – but it’s over. Their defence depends on a deficit model, the argument that they fill a unique gap. But that’s simply no longer true.

Take reference services, once the core of the public library’s educational role. Access to information has been transformed by the internet. Google a subject and you can become ridiculously well-informed ridiculously quickly. Engrossing lectures from the planet’s best minds are freely available on university websites, from the TED conference series, or on BBC iPlayer. Channels such as BBC Four or Sky Arts provide a wide range of high-quality documentaries across a multitude of subjects. We live in an information-rich society – so we should celebrate its availability, not yearn for a time when you had to go to the central library for it.

In recent years, libraries sought to reinvent themselves as information hubs. Hundreds of millions were spent to provide them with computers. What happened? Technology advanced, and soon the library computers were too old and too slow. That led to a demand for more investment. But why? Fast, cheap computing had spread to most homes, and to our whizzy new mobile phones. Where on earth is the gap that libraries are meant to plug?

Then there’s the argument that your local library is the gateway to a national and international network of literature and education. So it is – but so is your computer. Time was, to get hold of a particular book, you would have to go to a library and ask. Now, with Abebooks and Alibris, almost all the second-hand bookshops in the world are available to search. This is as true for new books as for old: more than 130,000 titles were published in the UK in 2009, and 330 million new books were purchased.

The final defence of the public library is that it is a place for the pupil who has nowhere else to study and revise. Once again, this is the 21st century. Virtually every kid has a desk at home – even if it often has a games console on it. And libraries at secondary schools are, in my experience, uniformly good and open places for young people.

Few institutions are timeless. Most reflect the period when they were created, and have to change as society changes if they are to survive. The crisis in our libraries is not because of the “cuts” – it’s because they are needed less.

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  1. James says:

    McTernan is a fanny

  2. James Davidson says:

    Unfortunately a good deal of truth here.
    With companies like Amazon and Google making public library content available
    via eReader devices,in time Libraries will indeed become redundant as sources of information.
    However,at present,not everyone has access to an electronic reader so for now they must remain
    open.

  3. Truly obscene. Is this what the Labour party has fallen to?

  4. My Missus uses the Public Library at least once a week and it always seems to be busy. Me? well I suppose I am a Philistine.

  5. calvin227 says:

    somebody is in the pay of the ISP companies to make sure they get full control of the market … if you have to have an internet connected computer to access public services then you have to pay the ISP companies for access … libraries are free access to the internet for all, and the ISP companies do not like the competition !!!!

  6. J McIllaney says:

    He seems completely ignorant of the way libraries are reinventing themselves for the digital era. The need for non commercial spaces is crucial, these are like the churches of the 21C

  7. Drewid says:

    For an eloquent and informed response to McTernan’s pish go here:
    http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/blog/soapbox

    1. Colm Linnane says:

      That link is to the general “Soapbox” blog which updates every week.
      Link to my piece is here.
      http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/blog/soapbox/2011/10/colm-linnane-john-mcternan-is-wrong-about-libraries
      Thanks to Drewid for the generous recommendation.

      Bit of a shame the Telegraph decided the best person to respond to this was Phillip Pullman. I don’t doubt his motives but think that the rush to weel kent faces from the Literate plays into the hands of nihilists like McTernan and his pals at Telegraph Blogs.

  8. Arthur McAleer says:

    I have spent a huge part of my life in Libraries and I think they are an essential for a well educated population. My local library is never empty. Also while on holiday I joined the local library in Italy ( to make use of their internet facilities) and it was busy every time I visited.

  9. Jimmy the Pie says:

    This article just sums up what London Labour have become.

    Easy to see why they’ll never again taste power.

  10. Siôn Jones says:

    ‘Most children have a desk at home. . . ‘ just goes to show how distant the Labour party has become from its traditional voters. I would have been shocked at this piece from john Redwood, but from a Labourite, it is quite beneath contempt!

  11. CapnAndy. says:

    Libraries have to keep with the times, and in fairness they try very hard to do so.
    But it’s not just about having somewhere to go and check a reference or relax with a penny dreadful. It’s about community. Libraries have always been a centre for community activities, whether it’s reading for the kids or visiting speakers.
    To close local libraries is ripping the heart out of communities.
    I will not vent my opinion of McTernan on a respectable forum suffice to say I understand he’s off to Australia and good riddance.

  12. jake says:

    Stupid argument.
    When was the last time you went to a court house, or a police station, or the house of commons, or an MPs surgery, or your local A&E?
    But then again I’ve never had the need to call on the services of a political press secretary with a whizzy new mobile phone, so cutting that expense from the public purse might have some merit; if we must cut public services that might be a good place to start.

  13. Scottish republic says:

    I fear Mr McTernan, in the long run libraries will disappear and you will be proved right. Your voice extolling the need to close such a public service is unnecessary, if it is to happen it will do,

    but shame on you for wanting it so.

  14. clom says:

    one suspects that Mr McTernan is laying the groundwork for “new opportunities” back in blighty. He’s been in that job the 1 year he’s normally in a post before bumping up against the glass ceiling of his ability.

  15. seven says:

    I use my local libraries all the time. Always busy, especially the computers & cafe. But really what do you expect from such a sneering arsehole.

  16. scotsthemes says:

    He has some good points, but not everyone even in this electronic age has a computer. Even if one does, not everything is available on the internet. And while bookshops are findable there (Abebooks etc) a book isn’t necessarily going to be there – and if it is, it may be beyond one’s pocket. MacT is probably right in seeing an end to libraries – eventually. But that, thank God, is a long way off. The points made about the socialness of libraries are really true, they’re like a literary pub often enough; and for children especially they are (for the foreeable future) not only a Good Thing but essential.

  17. Doug Daniel says:

    “Nearly 60 percent of us don’t go near libraries at all”“From one year to the next, nearly 60 per cent of us don’t go to libraries at all. In fact, fewer than one in five adults in England go more than once a month.”

    So 40% still use libraries? Excellent news, I thought it was maybe lower than that.

    When I was about 16 it was thanks to the local library’s music section that I got into The Clash, as I wasn’t in the habit of buying CDs without trying them out first. Then I was unemployed for a few months a few years ago and thus couldn’t afford the internet. The library was a blessing, allowing me to check job sites etc. In fact, it was in Partick library that I replied to the email that led to my next job. I was also recently trying to re-register for a library card for Aberdeen’s libraries; however, the process was so cumbersome that in the end I didn’t bother.

    Rather than closing libraries, let’s make them more accessible.

  18. Isla Browning says:

    I rarely use my library as I tend to buy from Amazon and like to keep the books I have read. But I do go if I have a problem with my computer and when I do I find it a buzzing place. Also there is an area for reading papers which is relaxing and especially for those living alone it it must be an enjoyable place to go. It seems to me to be an essential part of the community.

  19. milgram says:

    “This is a fight by middle-class liberals to keep libraries open not for themselves, but for the less fortunate”…
    “Then there’s the argument that your local library is the gateway to a national and international network of literature and education. So it is – but so is your computer”

    Let them eat chips.

  20. Ard Righ says:

    “Google a subject and you can become ridiculously well-informed ridiculously quickly”

    …and equally stupid twice as fast if you have no basis for judgement.

    That said, free and unhindered (no signing in) internet access should be the standard in libraries. Andrew Carnegie would soon turn things around if he were alive today.

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