(This image courtesy of Carolina Weick’s Walk With Me Photography)
Last week in The Guardian, author Terry Deary made the controversial claim that libraries foster “this idea that we’ve got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers. This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that.” Citing the ideas behind libraries as “no longer relevant,” Deary has been roundly chastised (most notably by fellow best-selling author Neil Gaiman) for his position. While I understand Deary’s concerns about artistic integrity and making a living off of his creative work, I find his position on libraries fundamentally flawed (not least because tax dollars go to libraries as well as to schools). Here’s why:
- Collections don’t build themselves.
Working with a budget as well as an area of expertise and extensive reading, librarians don’t just buy books. They build collections. They read and research widely to keep apace with the publishing industry and to find the best and most relevant books for their patrons. In doing so, librarians foster quality, breadth, and depth in the reading lives of their communities.
- It goes beyond books.
Deary compares his work to film, arguing that audiences will pay for movie tickets but not for books. That’s simply untrue. Libraries circulate books, audio-books, movies, music, e-readers, magazines, language-learning software, video games, etc.; libraries provide newspapers to peruse on site. One library even circulates a notoriously popular (and pricey) American Girl doll to children who could never afford to purchase it. If we read only what we can afford to purchase, all of us will be reading less.
- Perusal precedes purchase.
Deary also assumes that people who borrow library books would purchase said books if libraries did not exist. One needs only to look at the music industry and the Napster controversy to see that audiences will access a lot of things for free that we would never be willing to pay for. Oftentimes libraries provide a point of first contact, where patrons learn about (and, yes, borrow) books to find out if we like them enough to buy them.
- Behold, the digital divide.
Compulsory schooling may provide exposure to literature, but the years of mandatory public education are limited. Before, during, and beyond those years, libraries give access to books, other media, and technology. For many users, public library computers offer internet and computer access that is only becoming more essential in the 21st century.
- Digital natives get lost.
Wired Magazine’s Clive Thompson reports that while younger generations may feel most comfortable using technology, their skills are basic and limited; where information abounds, they lack the ability to find credible information. Librarians help train patrons in fundamental computer skills as well as more advanced research strategies. Freely available information is useless without the proficiency to find it, analyze it, and put it in context. That’s just one way librarians help.
- Community matters.
My local library offers preschool story hours, after-school craft programs, children’s play spaces, crafting groups, book clubs, art classes, art exhibits, exercise classes, public speakers, movie nights, book sales, craft fairs, and more. These are the official programs, beyond the friends and neighbors who meet up to enjoy and appreciate the library as a community center—for the books and so much more. Libraries are inter-generational, cultural, educational hubs.
- Diversity counts.
I have spent much of my life in public libraries, as a student, a teacher, a tutor, a mother, and, above all, a reader. I’ve used libraries as tutoring spaces for learners with developmental disabilities, adults learning to read long after their schooling years, and children struggling in the classroom. Libraries give all of those groups, and everyone in between, safe spaces to explore books and learn at their own pace. Libraries honor all reading levels and supply materials like large-print books, multi-lingual texts, and audiobooks so everyone can be included.
Libraries go beyond books, and I say that as someone whose love affair with books is nearly boundless. I even like the way old books smell. Libraries are about books, yes, and also technology, research, equality, accessibility, and community. Libraries are about librarians and patrons and communities in relationship. In a time when more individuals are struggling financially, it makes sense not to condemn libraries but to support them as lifelines for entire communities—a way to pool our resources for the collective good: educationally, culturally, socially, technologically, and relationally. And despite what Terry Deary might say, those relationships are priceless.
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