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.
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.