I visited a public library recently. It was not in my constituency. It was housed in a great new building, in a large and well appointed room. I was told it was not about to close. It was run by friendly Council staff. Money had been found to set it up and keep it going.
During the half hour I was in or near it I did not see anyone borrow a book. I was the only visitor in the visiting party to go and look at what was on the shelves. There were not that many books on offer. It was predominantly a fiction library. The crime section seemed to be the single biggest themed area.
I lingered over the non fiction shelves. The books seemed oriented to middle class hobbies like antiques and foreign travel. I guess the book buying had been well judged to cater for the demand of a fairly affluent local community that said it wanted a public library.
Some defenders of every public library imply that they are for a different clientele. They conjure images of children from homes living on low incomes developing a passion for reading serious books borrowed from the local library. The library is seen as a force for self improvement and the pursuit of knowledge. I fear that in many cases this is no longer true, if it ever was.
I remember as a sixth former running out of books to read on my chosen subjects in the school library. I gave the local public library a try. It had more books than the one I visited recently. The truth was, however, that even with a larger non fiction section, it was not designed to help the serious student. The school managed to help me sort out a reader’s ticket to go to the local University library, and to the Cathedral library, which saw me through the last year of school. When I got to university I then confronted the opposite problem. There were so many books in the university library on my chosen subjects I was intimidated by the weight and range of learning available. There lay several lifetime’s reading, not just three years.
It is important that those who wish to read to improve their minds or provide them with new skills should have access to books to do so. They also need access to computers, as so much good material is now available on the net. Many libraries and educational institutions do now offer this facility. We have a range of different libraries in many communities, largely provided at the taxpayer’s expense.
Most cities and large towns have secondary school libraries, public libraries and university libraries. Maybe at a time of tighter spending controls we need to think again about how many libraries we need in each community, where they are best placed, and how the educational libraries can be used by those who do not go to those institutions. A system of book transfer, holiday loans and the like might ease any book shortage, cater for those who wish to read well.
When it comes to general fiction libraries we need to see how many we need and where they best be located to maximise use whilst keeping down cost. Mobile libraries that bring the books from the big libraries to the public might be one way through, to improve the service at realistic cost.