A "guest contributor" in today’s Times, Helen Rumbelow, writes that public lending libraries have had their day. She states of libraries:
"With each passing year they decline: in the past decade, book-borrowing has dropped by 40 per cent while the cost of the service — now at £1.3 billion — has risen by the same proportion. But the response to this failure is always a new bout of hand-wringing, a new set of celebrities pleading for the public to return. This is because to be anti-library is thought to be anti-book, literacy and all nice, decent British virtues that come with being shushed by a lady in a cardigan. Well, I am daring to report that books are booming in Britain, with sales up by 3 per cent a year since 2001. If you want the truth, it is that books have killed libraries."
She goes on to opine that because books are so cheap to buy online, and information so easy to research and find on the internet, that there is no need of libraries.
"To judge from the scene I witnessed at the Idea Store — and the statistics back this up — books are decreasingly the draw. This flagship centre (they don’t call it a library for fear of putting people off) has escalators delivering people from the street straight into the brightly coloured halls. I stopped by the toy-filled play area, went up in the groovy lift to peruse the massage and dance classes, and had a cup of tea with a fantastic view of London through jewel-hued glass. The place looks great and it is thriving, except for those poor neglected shelves.
"At the Idea Store I had a radical idea. Let us admit that people can buy their own books if they want to. The one exception to this is children — libraries are vital for encouraging reading and literary tastes. Children’s libraries should be lavished with funding but could be located in the kind of places where they go anyway, such as play centres or after-school clubs — all the better for helping with homework. For everyone else, we should completely redefine what we want.
"If the Government decides to compete with £1-an-hour internet cafés, fine. If it wants to provide shelter on a rainy day, somewhere for those at a loose end to sit and read the newspapers, good. The book stock could then be centralised and if you wanted one you could order over the counter or online, to be picked up or delivered to your home in 24 hours, just like at the best independent bookshops.
"Don’t think of it as the end of libraries, just the start of millions of personal ones. The library is dead, long live the library."
I wonder what Tim Coates will make of this point of view? Certainly he would agree with the idea of internet-powered economies of scale, such as central ordering. But the dream of a public reading place, stacked with books, pleasant to sit in (to do your homework or read quietly if there is no peace where you live — or no internet connection) is a hard dream to forgo. But is it a hopelessly unrealistic, outmoded concept, as Helen Rumbelow suggests?