Philip Pullman on saving libraries

In Britain, a new austerity budget has threatened massive library closures across the country, with some communities in danger of ending up with no public library at all. Philip Pullman's local chief counsellor accused authors of defending libraries because they like the royalties they earn from the books libraries buy. In response, Pullman has given this stirring speech about the value of libraries to their communities and to civilization:
The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that's all he understands. What he doesn't understand is enterprises that don't make a profit, because they're not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn't understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch - how much money did it make last year? Why aren't you charging higher fines? Why don't you charge for library cards? Why don't you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books - you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there - what's on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs.

That's all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for...

I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. It must have been about 1957. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don't know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination.

And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what's going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You're a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?

Leave the libraries alone. You don't understand their value. (Thanks, GuidoDavid, via Submitterator!)

(Image: Manchester Central Library, March 2010, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from 16712259@N04's photostream)


  1. I’m a little confused about the general consensus dealing with libraries. For the most part (those at Boing Boing) seem to be pro libraries, however the same people are pro e-books and pay what you want for books over the internet. Is this a conflict? Unless you re-define what a library is, then isn’t giving away books online, and the whole e-book phenomenon what’s making the library obsolete. Don’t get me wrong, I’m having the same conflict with myself right now as well. I’m just curious what others have to say on the subject.

    1. My repsonse would be that a well-managed library is more than a warehouse where one can borrow books for free.

      It’s not what *I* get from from a library (these days), since I treat them as warehouses where I can borrow books for free.

      It is public space, open to all. I’d hate to see that go, as much as I’d hate to see public shopping streets go, to be replaced with closes malls, policed by private security and most certainly NOT open to all.

  2. Libraries are one of the best source of gaining knowledge. You can get almost every kind of information from the internet but you that may not get that sot of feel and enjoyment that one gets sitting in a library and going books through different. So preserve the libraries.

  3. We have the library from hell in my town. If (and I hope this is not the case) many libraries are following the Palm Springs Public Library’s business practices, I can see why the industry is tanking. Four times in the last month, having first checked the online catalog for book availability, I’ve discovered that the book in question has been missing since the early 1990s.

    The catalog and reality don’t agree because the library has not done an inventory in more than two decades. This might explain why there are three copies of The Golden Compass and zero copies of The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Nobody is curating the collection. I would consider purchasing the books and donating them if it weren’t for the fact that, when I’ve done it in the past, it’s taken more than three months for the books to show up in circulation.

    My guess as to the reason that there’s nobody at the wheel is that everybody seems to be constantly busy helping patrons check out DVDs, which appears to be the library’s main activity. I’m not sure why they decided to become a free Netflix, but it’s to the detriment of what I would assume to be the core mission of any community library – lending books.

    Just because an institution is not run with profit in mind doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t run with the same efficiency as a profitable business. Libraries are funded by taxpayer dollars and private donations. Both of those sources of income and materials deserve to be treated with respect. I think that it’s great to have a place where people can read or study and books available for people who can’t afford to or don’t want to buy them. But it’s not a free service. Somebody pays for it, and those somebodies deserve to have their contributions well-managed.

    1. Speaking as a librarian, as well as a library issues columnist and consultant who has worked with libraries all across the US developing YA spaces and programming, I would say your library experience is the exception not the rule.

      My gut reaction to your complaint is to urge you to become involved in your library. Most libraries are run by boards that are open to members of the public by either election or appointment. These boards have regular meetings and are open to members of the public. Please bring your issues to their attention. I assure you, you will be heard. Library boards can exert enormous pressure on library staff and administration to deal with issues, especially issues of patron service.

      I’m “media-blind” when it comes to what patrons want. Books, graphic novels, cds, DVDS, sheet music, wax cylinders, photocopies of incunable from distant libraries, it’s all about addressing their needs. That your library is, by your assessment, focused on DVDs speaks more to what the patron base wants than any library policy. Many communities that have high DVD check-out often have populations (recent immigrants, the poor, undocumented) that have difficulty getting rental cards or credit cards to access services like Netflix. A library card is a much lower bar for access, and as a librarian I’m very proud of that.

      I leave you with this, the return on investment for every dollar invested in libraries is estimated to be $4. If there was a stock paying off like that, or a business opportunity, any sane person would be rushing to buy-in with wheel-barrows full of cash. Librarians, who are degreed professionals, are paid well-below our counterparts with similar graduate educations. Library budgets are precarious and the shifting role of libraries (from book depository to community center) demands more and more with less. But damn, if I’m not proud to be in this profession.

      I’m truly sorry you got snagged with a library that’s sub-par. Please don’t let that experience color your view of libraries and librarianship as a whole.

      1. I offered to curate the SF section, or as I call it, the ‘we don’t have any Ursula Leguin or Isaac Asimov’ shelf. I would have come up with a reading list and scrounged up the books on eBay and Amazon marketplace. I could have easily gotten a hundred hardcovers for $250. They weren’t interested because they don’t have an inventory to work from. It really is Satan’s little book nook.

        1. Oh my goodness.

          That’s…unforgivable. A few years back I had some YA patrons offer to help me expand the manga section. They collected nearly $1000 dollars in gently used paperbacks (largely through trades and conventions they attended) we threw them a damn pizza party for their efforts, wrote them college letters of reference, did everything short of give them the keys to the library.

          Any library that turns away the good efforts of patrons is broken. That’s just…wow. I’m so sorry!

          1. The bureaucratic obstacle thing drives me nuts. It’s so easy to acquire cheap books on eBay now, it’s crazy for the library to have so many holes in their collection.

            One of the problems that I’ve identified with this library is a tendency to train patrons to be flakes. They do six-week loans for books that are more than a couple of years old. So that you can take your library books with you on vacation. That seems horribly wrong. Particularly in a town where half the people who can get library cards only live here three to six months per year.

            I went to the library constantly when I was a child, and I was taught to respect the library and its books. This library seems to have decided that the customer is always right, which seems odd when you’re handing them a stack of books for free. Their system encourages people to check out five books and keep renewing online, rather than borrow what you intend to read and bring it back when you’re done.

            And there’s never less than one employee slowly and painfully explaining how to use the check-out scanners. It would be perfectly reasonable to ask patrons to come to check-out training sessions instead of tying up librarians one by one. There seems to be an overwhelming reluctance to ask borrowers to take some responsibility for helping the library to function better.

          2. Ebay is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve picked up whole collections of board and picture books (which always need replacing and are often hideously expensive) from craigslist. Parents looking to declutter will sell-off at a fraction of the price, or when I they see my library e-mail they often offer the books gratis.

            Same with graphic novels and YA books. All of these have high turnover so are always in need of replacing.

            I think you’ve nailed the crux of their problem, this library has ceded sound policy to patron’s whim.

            Good structure and clear guidelines help patrons value the library more. Better to have 3 week check-outs with the option to renew. The little nag of a late notice makes a patron more mindful. It also increases library visits. Before anyone asks, no library makes any kind of money off late fees. We just want the books back in good condition. Many library run canned food “amnesty” days where a few cans of food will buy off your fines. Again, we just want the books.

            Don’t even get me started on self-checkout. I call abomination on those things. They confuse patrons, both young and old, they are constantly throwing a technical fit of some kind, an employee has to babysit them almost constantly so why not just have them run the check-out?

            A smiling front desk associate telling you your due dates is a personal connection that helps make patrons feel welcome at the library. This notion that people can breeze in and out without speaking to a soul is more than a little creepy if you ask me.

    2. I’ve experienced similar problems Antious. Welcome to the neo-liberal model for the destruction of public services.

      Step 1. Underfund. Once a service is underfunded it will be incapable of providing a high quality of service. It will be frustrating to use, understaffed and with unqualified staff and will generally cause you to tear your hair out.

      Step 2. Detail the poor performance as being caused by bureaucracies which as well all know are always mismanaged.

      Step 3. Remove the public service as a waste of tax-payer resources.

      Bureaucracies of course can go wrong. This is as true in the corporate as in the public sphere. The fundamental issue is having accountability and some way to make them go right again. There are plenty of examples of well managed public services ranging from roads to health-care throughout the world.

      Public services can not be well replaced by the market. Public health issues are global health issues as epidemics spread with poor health and unhealthy populations are unproductive. Private roads cause bottle-necks, natural monopolies and tolling which leads to traffic jams which reduce global efficiency. Overlapping network service providers duplicate infrastructure and bureaucracy for no reason. Private ownership of books is inefficient as books can be read many times and represent a waste of productive power when we all buy them individually.

      The primary question we need to be asking is how we can make our institutions work for us. The idea that we do it simply by privitising or making public does not hold up to scrutiny. The profit motive is no more magically capable of providing quality institutions than relying on altruism.

  4. @candycritic Not a conflict as far as I can see. For one, public libraries are adapting to the emergence of ebooks, increasingly offering downloadable ebooks to their patrons. But more fundamentally, the contemporary library is more than just a dead-tree repository: Public libraries offer internet access for those who can’t afford it, as well as a staff of trained information professionals who can help patrons use the internet and other digital resources effectively to find what they need. Not to mention the wealth of cultural and literary events that many libraries make freely available to their communities.

  5. I’m all for public libraries but can see the problems. I’ve experience of the insane overheads of libraries being run by local government (Councils) in the UK. For example when I was working for a Council they were paying £50k/pa for a VPN for a library with 1 PC. Council people are generally well meaning but have zero experience of what things should cost, so even basic IT and phone infrastructure will cost 10x what it does in the private sector. Also being Councils all the librarians will have to be CRB checked and attend gender/sexuality awareness courses at some inflated price. Consequently I believe the major overhead costs of running a library are due to them being run by the local authorities. I’m with Cameron and his “big society” on this one; like a library in your community ? Great, let the community fund-raise and run it – Government like government everywhere shouldn’t be doing everything for everyone.

  6. If you want space and money for community centers that have computers and say a few loanable Kindles with large libraries of ebooks then fine. I’m all for that. Just don’t call the place a library. Libraries are collections of books and except for a few historic places like the Huntington or the Smithsonian we’re living in the 2011. It’s time to move forward not back. Just like giving up horse drawn carriages it’s about time for libraries to start phasing out books.

    We no longer need fax machines, VCRs, record players, newspapers, and we’re getting close to not needing books. A community center with computers would serve far more people than collections of old books. In fact most libraries are hopelessly out of date. Need medical info? Tech info? Law Info? Design info? Photography Info? Almost all libraries collections in these topics are out of date. The way to make it up to date is computers, not more books.

    1. Time to start phasing out books?
      I shudder at the thought of a future where books are seen as obsolete… truly disturbing.

      1. Personally, I’m quite happy with the idea of a future where paper books are obsolete, the same way scrolls have become. But we’re not there. People keep saying you can find everything in pdf and enjoy it just as much on a digital reader, but in my experience even the first part is still very far from being true.

        Right now, trying to find somewhat poorly known but still useful books, both the internet and rooms of physical copies have been invaluable. The same is even more true for browsing: unless you know exactly what you want, or are interested in something lots of other people make recommendations about, I’ve found it is much easier to look around for gems on the shelf.

    2. The idea that texts and the act of reading them are substantively identical regardless of medium/presentation is more than a little ridiculous. Especially as children and adolescents, when we’re using them to first construct our worldview, the way we encounter and interact with books affects how we understand them and our relation to them, both individually and in general. Properties specific to physical books – like spatial distribution, finite access, interface isolation – have relevant effects other than those on efficiency of storage and consumption. This is another aspect of exactly what Pullen is talking about: if you can only understand books or libraries through the lens of a value system that they don’t operate under, you just don’t get it.

      I’m not saying that physical books are superior over ebooks, or that we shouldn’t embrace their benefits, but let’s not rush to eliminate all pre-Internet diversity of media and distribution, yeah? “Upload them all, the crowd will know its own.” Before the proliferation of written manuscripts, there were benefits to living in an oral culture – the ancients Greeks, for example, regularly had prodigious memories we couldn’t begin to match today. Does this mean the invention of writing was a “bad thing”? Of course not. But it does mean that we should be aware of the properties and function of media beyond those privileged by the new paradigm, and shouldn’t take conversion or progression as an absolute value.

  7. My local library is also facing closure, but it is much more than a warehouse for books. Through the summer holidays the run a reading game to encourage children to read a book a week, most of the children in the village join in. Every Sunday they run games and activities in there. It’s fun for us as a family to go down and make maps of the village, listen to talks and make firework models. My youngest son can’t read yet but still loves to go and get books out to be read to him and just to look at the pictures. We all enjoy the library and would miss it lots, but because it’s in a little village and isn’t open every day it’s seen as non-essential, so by next year it will probably be gone, and once it’s gone it won’t be coming back.

  8. Boing-boing needs to put together a list of things that can’t get less funding. From Philip Pullman, we get libraries. From a bunch of admirals, it’s the Ark Royal. (Peter Hitchens has also been acid about this.) Keep going and we can add to the list!

    Incidentally, a lot of American library systems use volunteers extensively-the Fairfax County system is an example. Pullman doesn’t seem to grasp that it’s possible to volunteer for an hour or two at a time instead of being a full time volunteer.

  9. This speech by Mr. Pullman is fantastically well-written, and moving, and much more than just another discussion of why a particular library or set of libraries should not be cut. Thank you for drawing our attention to it.

  10. The public library in my community is busier than ever. Literacy programs, children’s reading groups, tons of music, movies and books, as well as downloadable books, free internet access. During the recession especially, but at all times, its an invaluable community resource. And its free to its users.

    I read this argument sometimes about technology changing. All I can say, is my library is packed, and the parking lot full, all the time. Its a miniscule part of the city budget and I can’t see how anyone serious about government budgets can waste time hunting for pennies at the library.

  11. mgfarrelly- If the ROI on libraries is 4-to-1, they could be easily self-funding. This is patently not the case. The fact is that libraries consume tax dollars in a time when ALL major democracies are running enormous deficits and debts. When most people either a)consume media of various flavours via the web, or b)buy cheap books from supermarkets/Amazon, why should taxpayers fund increasingly irrelevant collections of dusty fiction and out-of-date reference material? We would be better off scrapping the whole system and instead spending the money saved on cheap web-access schemes for those unable to afford computers/broadband.

    1. I’m sorry, that’s just bullocks.

      Libraries aren’t just book collections, or even just repositories of all manner of media. Libraries offer programming from cradle to grave. Storytimes, reading circles, book discussions, science/art/music/history educational programming, teen spaces and programming, computer/career instruction, tutoring, college selection mentoring, supplementary materials to every level of education, tax information, programs on finance, home-buying, parenting, adult arts and craft, cultural and family events, programming for senior citizens, elder care initiatives and even program on end of life planning and estate management.

      All of this for less than what the average american loses in pocket change every year. The notion that austerity is served by gutting libraries is ridiculous. The wealthy will always have access to the services and materials libraries offer. Public libraries offer patrons of all backgrounds an equality of access that is breath-taking in its scope.

      Libraries are often the only positive communal institution in a community. Who enjoys seeing the cops pull up to your house or loves a day at the DMV?

      Scrapping a community institution in favor of broadband? It’s a bit like saying we don’t need museums because we have photographs. Life is not a screen.

      The cost of libraries is nothing compared to the cost of not having libraries. I’m terribly sorry you seem to have missed that vital notion.

  12. This reminds me of an unsettling scene in Rainbows End, where a university library is closed in an era of augmented reality and brain interfaces.

    To preserve the contents of the library, books are sucked into a big tube and violently shredded. The bits are scanned in detail and stitched together in software to reconstruct each book, in digital form.

    The workers in their hazard suits, sucking books off the shelf in an obsoloete library with a giant vacuum cleaner/shredder. Gah. It is horrifyingly plausible.

  13. Libraries were deeply, profoundly important to me growing up. They were my cathedrals. My mother was a librarian for a time (at the Linnaean Society in London, where a “nuclear proof” safe deep underground protected Carl Linnaeus’ original samples and notes) and later at NELP in Walthamstow, London. I voraciously read every SF novel in our local library. Libraries were cathedrals to me. I remember chances to visit major libraries at universities, and my heart racing as I stepped into their hushed majesty. The only thing that was even close to what some might call a “religious experience” for me occured in the racks of my college library.

    But …

    I watch my daughter (now 16) grow. We live in a suburban community with an excellent (if slightly underfunded) library system. When she was very young, the library was a central social institution for us, but by the time she was 7 or 8, it really stopped being so. The weekly trips to gather up another bunch of outrageously good children’s fiction and the occasional non-fiction slowed to “sometimes” and then to “never” as she moved into longer fiction that she read herself (I didn’t like the choices, but hey, “Pretty Little Liars” is still reading, right?). And then came the internet. And why not? In terms of what libraries meant to me as a younger person, the internet beats them all in every possible, imaginable way except for two:

    * physical presence and the company of others
    * the presence of “classic” works

    By “classic” I’m not referring solely to literature. I mean “the books that are accepted as the standards for a given niche. You still can’t read Knuth online if you want to be a programmer. New vegetarian cooks will not find the Greens cookbook anyway online. Of course, your local library might not either, but that’s the measure of what a good library is like.

    And so one the one hand, I’m deeply sad. She (and her friends) don’t browse library shelves, devouring knowledge, serendipitously encountering the unexpectedly delightful or even the merely suprising. But they can, and they do, experience this in a different domain, in which, despite the absence of the massively paper-damped acoustics and (sometimes) lofty architecture, they can roam even more widely, more freely and more deeply than the library ever allowed.

    What we do about the social role that libraries have played, I don’t know. And clearly, major repositories (LoC, British, most large university collections, etc) play a different role than neighbourhood libraries. But even, perhaps even especially, the college library is going to become less relevant even faster than the local branch library with its children stories. I weep for the the potential loss of these places, all of them, and the way that for a few people, access to ideas, to experience, to the full range of the possible will diminish, or even vanish. But at the same time, it is being replaced by something that, though different, has the likely outcome of being better in every way. I honor Pullman and his efforts to save Oxfordshire’s local libraries. I hope they are successful in the face of the current grim reaper of a government his country lives under. But for myself, I’d rather work to make sure that the future version of the library – that subset of the internet not filled with pornography, celebrity and trivia – lives up to its promise and lets future generations explore the world of knowledge, ideas and experience as I did.

    1. Certainly specialist libraries like that of the Linnaean Society will continue to exist, as the physical objects of historical books, manuscripts, and artifacts are important. Even if they are digitized (and I hope they are/will be), the objects themselves have intrinsic value. Not so much for a typical public library, which could technically be replicated electronically, although not legally under current copyright laws.

  14. Libraries are alive and thriving. Are they as well funded as we’d like? No, but what public services IS? Especially in this economy? But libraries have always been FOR the community and OF the community. This was true when I was young and it’s true now that I have young ones.

    Libraries have never been JUST books. They have always had microfiche, records, magazines, newspapers, community groups, free classes, games and a host of other services. In the years since I was young they have expanded: many people use them for free Internet access and classes, access to books (electronic and printed), video games, movies, CDs and lots of other materials. It is a place where any citizen can get access, any citizen can contribute.

    Unless you re-define what a library is, then isn’t giving away books online, and the whole e-book phenomenon what’s making the library obsolete.

    The disconnect is that YOUR definition of a library is incorrect. The library doesn’t need to redefine itself, you need to re-examine what a library actually does versus what you thought it did. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go check out an e-book from the library onto my nook. :)

  15. Some great original research and resources about how libraries are perceived and used (disclosure, produced by my not-for-profit place of work):

    “Perceptions of Libraries, 2010: Context and Community”

    “How Libraries Stack Up,”

    One of the quick take-aways from our research has been that during bad economic times, more people use the library for job searching, training, form finding/filling, etc. Not a big revelation… but good to have solid data behind it. One interesting fact… even people who aren’t personally affected by the economic downturn tend to say that during such periods the library is more important for their community.

    Of course, during these down periods, funding goes south at the same time that usage goes up.

    Lots of other good data in there, for those interested in libraries.

  16. I brought a wheel into the bike shop for some repairs, and the staff (who know I’m a librarian, formerly of that neighborhood’s branch) took the time to let me know that, all winter long (the slow months: many repairs, not many sales) they download and listen to audiobooks from the library’s downloadable media service.

    I was really tickled that they took the time to tell me. Even though I’m not involved in providing that service, my colleague is, and she works really hard at supporting access for countless devices. (DRM being so complicated.) I texted her the good news. (She uses that bike shop, too, and we even bought the same model bikes.)

    Meanwhile, back at my tiny, ugly, not very well maintained branch library, to quote Anon #11 above, “my library is packed, and the parking lot full, all the time.” DVDs are practically a dead format by now, but I’m still fighting to get a DVD collection on site, because my patrons order them delivered from other branches like mad. *SO WHAT* if Netflix provides a duplicate service? My patrons support the library to the tune of $40 per year, and get all the books they can handle on top of a constant stream of DVDs. There are more than one kind of literacy, folks. Insisting that libraries are only for books would leave all of these other valuable, beloved, culturally significant forms of media stranded without something like libraries to collect and disseminate them! We also have newspapers, comics, music, and will probably have video games within another generation. Whatever we have is all very well used!

    But let’s talk about those books. We have an extensive collection of picture books that save new parents *thousands of dollars* when teaching their kids to read. Really, people! Books like this retail for $15-$25 a pop; if you want to read 100 books to your child, it would cost you in the neighborhood of two grand retail. It’s a lot easier to take this service for granted when your own kids, or you yourself, have outgrown them. But that’s okay – it’s typical to outgrow the public library collection, right around your teenage years, and not come back until you either have kids, lose a job, or retire.

    Which leads me to the other kinds of books we have – lots of bestsellers for retirees. It’s not stuff that I care to read (lots of James Patterson and Nora Roberts) but its well used and loved by the community. I have seniors who come in every single day to get a new book, and others who come in once a week and go home with a dozen. What is so terrible about investing in this resource now, so that when you and I retire it will be packed with thousands of the books that WE love? Sure, I’ll read these all on my digital device if I can get them that way, for free, probably from my library; but I’m not going rule out paper books if that winds up being a still viable system in thirty years – I’d be a fool to!

    Also, we serve a lot of immigrants. We have ESL materials, and children’s and adult books in 3 languages, to aid in learning English, and to help retain those first language skills which will be critical to our immigrant kids’ and local business community’s long-term success.

    My point is that all of this is infrastructure that supports every aspect of society. Even if YOU don’t use the library, the nurse who will be wiping your snot in a few years almost certainly came to us for materials that got him trained and licensed. Even if YOUR daughter doesn’t spend the hours combing the stacks of scifi like you once did, her classmates are here pirating 50 Cent CDs or checking out their first LP to learn how that strange and ancient recording format once worked. If you think that new media and new formats are “replacing” us or making us obsolete, you are simply ignorant of the work we do every day, and the numbers we see coming through the doors. Literacy has exploded into multiple literacies, making more (not less) work for us.

  17. I also think that those of us who are early adopters (and have similarly tech-savvy peer groups) can be unaware of just how long the adoption curve can be. Before I worked at a library, I had no idea how many people were still using VHS and audio cassettes, but we nonetheless have a lot of seniors who never made the jump to DVD or CD, much less ebooks and other digital technologies. Which is not to say that libraries don’t need to keep pace with new media in order to stay relevant (and continue to educate people on their use to bring them up to speed), but there will still be plenty of demand in the foreseeable future for physical books.

  18. Libraries might not be as crucial for those living in middle and upper middle class suburbs, where you can just drive to the local books store chain and browse without worrying that the employees are following you to make sure you don’t steal anything, but in lower income, minority, and immigrant areas, libraries are still essential, and well-used as a result.

    In addition to highly-educated adults who will answer questions and help find resources (probably the single greatest offering at public libraries), you’ve got books in every format, internet access, DVDs and VHS, local museum passes, weekly activities, and a peaceful temperature-controlled environment.

  19. Books ain’t dead yet. I submit that the use of bound books won’t stop within any of our lifetimes.

    It’s easy for You Kids Today to draw a parallel between your book libraries and your music libraries. You don’t buy CDs anymore, and only the pretentious among you maintain a collection of vinyl LPs. All your old music you’ve digitized, and maybe you keep the old discs as backup and maybe you’ve ditched them. And maybe you’ll never again own any music on any discrete physical medium. It may be easy for you to imagine doing the same with books. You may already read everything on a screen, and you imagine it would be simplicity itself for you to exchange the several dozen physical books you own for their digital editions.

    But there still exist a whole lotta people like me, who own thousands of books, and couldn’t digitize them all even if we wanted to, or had the time, money, energy, and inclination to do so. A great many of these books will outlive me, and then someone else will have to deal with them. Sure, they might burn them to keep warm during the nuclear winter that follows my death, but I think it’s more likely that someone will just read them, and keep them. At some point the world’s population will necessitate living spaces of fewer than 100 square feet, making ownership of a physical library problematic at best. But as long as there remains room for houses that can contain bookshelves, I think we’ll see books persist.

    And I’m less of a Luddite than you might guess. I read stuff on my Kindle every day, and also on my Kindle app on my Android phone. Very handy for smuggling into workplace bathrooms for midafternoon craps without raising eyebrows like a magazine tucked under one’s arm does. But it’s not an either/or situation, anyway.

    If the revolution comes and the center cannot hold and the bottom falls out of everything, leading to widespread failure of power grids, network connectivity, and eventually battery life… the books will still be around to teach us how to rebuild all that crap.

    Keep yer stuff in a cloud if you want, whippersnappers. This 41-year-old geezer maintains that the smart money remains on the Hard Copy.

  20. Stunning speech though i think it’s worth pointing out that england will probably be bearing the brunt of these public service cuts rather than the UK as a whole.

    Lest we forget… ‘libraries gave us power’

  21. What I’m getting from this is that Libraries are not just about books, but also about social places. That’s fine and all, but then why not turn libraries into community centers with other social facilities then. I also get the feeling that many people hate the idea of libraries loaning out DVD’s and other media. I think that choosing the medium distributed isn’t fair and makes you a bit of a communications snob, choosing the medium you feel as most pure.

    As far as digital media in a library, many libraries I know offer that media on their websites, so there’s no point in actually having a building in that case. I’m sure in no time libraries will have the same facilities as Netflix.

    I guess the solution I see is more digital media, more community centers that offer help finding the digital media, and maybe we get rid of those cumbersome books? Is this the better way?

    1. The thing is, there is no need to “turn” libraries into anything, they are becoming what the public needs on their own.

      When I was still in college in the early aughts there was a real tension among old school librarians about internet usage. You’d hear all sorts of doom talk and resistance to more terminals or more online services. Now the internet has been folded into the library as a whole.

      Libraries have always been community centers. We’re quiet, extremely cheap to run and offer an astounding array of services. Honestly, if anything, as Mr. Pullman points out, dullard politicos have no concept of just how vital libraries are, and because they come from such privilege, they never will.

    2. As mgfarrelly points out, that’s already the direction that libraries have been headed. Phasing out the physical book entirely isn’t going to happen overnight–you’d be surprised how many people exist who lack even basic “this is how a mouse works” computer literacy–but transitioning from print to digital media is something libraries are already actively engaged in. And the fundamental mission of the library, that is giving people the skills and equipment necessary for information access and the encouragement of lifelong learning, remains a constant.

  22. “…transitioning from print to digital media is something libraries are already actively engaged in…”

    Indeed they are: my concern is whether the archival function of the library will continue, or has been given enough weight, in deciding how to make that transition.

    What’s the reliable shelf life in decades up to now for digitally stored works?

    How long does the tech last?
    Are cd/dvd/memory chips sufficiently robust and long-lived to replace that useful function of books?
    Will that function require constant connection to someplace else?

    The function of serving as a means to independently and accurately store information over very long periods of time is one which books fulfill almost effortlessly.

    Can digital media presently and credibly claim to fulfill that function at all?

    1. Can digital media presently and credibly claim to fulfill that function at all?

      Nope, sez I. And then what happens when/if Joe Lieberman gets his Internet Off Switch? The very idea that such a thing is even theoretically possible removes my faith in abandoning hard copies. At least Guy Montag and his fireman cronies needed years of physical labor to accomplish their media-destroying ends. One good-sized EMP or sufficiently badass virus, and a whole lotta digitized media is rendered instantly inaccessible.

      But then, destruction has never been nearly as labor-intensive as creation. I fear that this regrettable situation has only gotten worse.

  23. As a paraprofessional at an academic library, I am thrilled to read the defenses of libraries above this. To those who claim that everything is available on the internet, I would merely ask what they’ve tried to find, recently. Things that patrons have requested through interlibrary loan in recent weeks include: microfilm reels of newspapers and theses; dissertations; epub versions of medical articles; textbooks; foreign language publications; archaeological excavation texts; fantasy novels.

    No library collection can contain everything. Similarly, the internet does not contain everything. While articles and journals might be available, they are often behind extremely expensive pay walls, or access might be routed through an institution-only database. We often have problems getting articles, in fact, because the businesses that organize such things often put in language that excludes the sharing or transmission of the electronic versions of journals. Copyright law is a fascinating thing, and trust me, it makes the world of “things available on the internet” a much smaller and less colourful world. If a student is working with a kindergarten class off-site, they may well request children’s literature or studies on the field of early development. Picture books do not translate well, even if you can afford an iPad to display them on. We also have Kindles and ebooks available. Frequently, people request the paper copies, because many people (myself included, and I’m less than a quarter-century old) hate them. You can’t make photocopies, it’s hard to print, nearly impossible to take comprehensive notes….the list goes on.

    Obviously, academic libraries serve a different group of patrons than the average public library (we do borrow and lend heavily to public libraries; the interests of our patrons frequently overlap!) They have it substantially harder: serving everyone from birth until death means an awful lot of problems. Yes, there are some poorly run libraries, and that is a shame. It is difficult to catalog or do inventories with low staff, but obviously, if someone is trying to help, there should always be a place for that. On the other hand, to critique them for a widely-used DVD collection seems awfully strange– if they were Nora Robert or Dan Brown books, would you be more content? I’m glad their patrons are there and enjoying the collection. I can hope that they’ll maybe be curious and read fiction, or poetry, or, say, Latin translations, but that is because those are things I love, and which I hope more people come to love as well.

    Anyway. I’m not an expert– way too young!– but libraries are a great thing. And if you haven’t been in a while, stop in. Borrow a movie or get a coffee. Read something. They’re happy to see you, whichever you choose.

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