Saturday, 9 April 2016

Answering back: what we can say to library-closers

Libraries are on everyone's mind as the Carnegie Library occupation continues. Many of us (children's writers, I mean) signed an open letter in support of the occupiers this week.

I'm a strong believer in trying to understand the opposition's point of view and answer their criticisms directly. It's all too easy to stand shouting the same thing, 'libraries are invaluable, this is cultural vandalism, people need libraries,' and get nowhere. Because the other side is also shouting and not listening. (And, unfortunately, doing and not listening.) Let's start with a premise that seems to have got lost somewhere in the 20th century: everyone wants to build a society in which it is good to live. Most people in politics want a better and wealthier society. It's just that we disagree on the means to achieve that end and on what are the acceptable sacrifices en route. Now let's listen to those who want to close libraries. It seems their main points are:

1. We need to cut public spending and no one wants to cut help for the sick, the elderly, or other vulnerable people in order to keep a bunch of books in a room with decreasing appeal to the public.

2. All information is available on the internet so why do people need access to books? They're an expensive luxury.

3. Why should everyone fund your reading hobby? No one funds my drinking/gardening/yatching hobby.

4. Authors only defend libraries because they make money from them.

There might be other reasons, but those will do for now.

Let's try answering them with reasoned argument rather than just passion.

1. We have to set aside the question of whether we really need to make cuts, as that's a larger political question and upscaling the argument means we're opting out of engaging. Take it as read that a council has committed to making cuts and will do so. The anti-library stance makes an emotive appeal by saying services for vulnerable people are more important than libraries. Two answers spring to mind: (a) yes, they are; and (b) providing libraries reduces vulnerability in the long term.

(a) Defenders of libraries are not saying we should cut mental health services (as if there were any) or stop housing homeless people. These are not the choices. It's not 'libraries or housing' or 'libraries or facilities for orphans'. There are many things councils pay for that have less emotional public value. Planting flowers on roundabouts, for instance. Cleaning the streets. Enforcing petty restrictions. I'm not saying any of those are more/less important than libraries. But there are less sensitive areas to cut for the small amount of money it takes to run a library. Not building a stupid garden bridge, for example... Framing it in terms of libraries v. sick people is disingenuous. There are many different options to consider and weigh up. You might still decide libraries can go, but let's start with a fair debate.

(b) People can use libraries to help themselves before (or after) they engage with council-funded services. Books are a source of both information and succour. The use of 'reading prescriptions' to help people with depression is one example. It's cheaper to get someone to borrow a book from the library than provide them with six months CBT. A lot cheaper. A book on dealing with anxiety is a lot cheaper than a course of medication. They are not enough for everyone, but nothing is right for everyone. Libraries are a tool that aids autonomy and self-reliance.  They can save people and save money. If doctors said 'read this book on anxiety, this is the library shelfmark for it', how good would that be? OK, not everyone can/will read. But it doesn't take many...

2. A lot of information is available on the internet, but (a) libraries aren't only about information and (b) being able to find the information you want in a form you can understand and know it is from a reliable source are not actually skills most people have.

(a) Libraries lend information books, but also novels, plays, poetry, biography, and a host of other books. I find it astonishing that we have defended libraries on the basis of information when - in every other aspect of publishing discourse - only fiction is afforded any value or column inches. How did this happen? Yes, you can use libraries to find information of the literally-true variety (Stegosaurus lived 130 million years ago, and so on). But you can also use them to develop as a human being, soaking up the emotional-cultural wisdom of centuries - the not-literally-true-but-illustrative truth of fiction and poetry.

(b) There are some odd things about finding information on the internet. It's fine for answering a specific question - though you still need to be able to understand the information you find and be able to judge whether it is from a reliable source. But if you don't know the question to ask, you're lost. Say you are 11 and want to know about developments in gene therapy because you hope there might be something to help with your granddad's cancer. You don't know the buzz words so you can't search for the right thing. You won't understand the information you find, because it's full of DNA ligases and CRISPR. But if you found a book in the children's section of the library, it would have been written in language you can understand by someone who has gone to reliable sources - Nature, say - which were not available or accessible to you.

If you want to know how to tie a bow-tie, YouTube is your best source. If you want to understand why some countries have a death penalty and others don't, a library is your best source. If you want to know about evolution, abortion or any number of contentious issues, the internet is a terrible place to start - there is masses of propaganda and misinformation presented as information. Young people can't always tell them apart. Books are more likely to be balanced, especially books chosen by a skilled librarian.

And it's OK to have more than one source of stuff. Why is it only information that is supposed to come from a single source? We're happy to have both supermarkets and bakers or sweetshops or off-licences. 

3. Stop seeing reading as a hobby and see it as education, life-long learning. It is enriching and health-giving. We do fund other 'hobbies' we see as health-giving: councils provide sports grounds, swimming pools, cycle tracks, youth clubs, etc. They provide village halls that are booked at low cost so people can play bingo, dance salsa, swap plants. It's not an unfair subsidy. But the real point is that reading should not be counted a 'hobby'. It's part of a healthy lifestyle, just as exercise is. It contributes to good mental health. We don't fund much else that does that.

4. Most people who make this claim are unaware of PLR, the small payment authors get when a book is borrowed from a library (not a library run by volunteers, though). They mean, a library buys a copy of your book, you get some money. They are probably not aware that the royalty on that book is about 20p. How much protesting are we going to do to retain 20p? But, of course, we would defend libraries even without PLR. Because we want to defend reading. And it's true that if people don't read, they don't buy books. And that's where we get our money from: not from libraries, but from individuals buying books. So while it's true that libraries indirectly boost our income, that is not the reason for defending them. They help to level the playing field for people, and particularly children, who would otherwise be excluded from a massive part of our cultural heritage - and by that I mean everything from reading classic novels to understanding how genetic technologies work or being able to find footpath routes from one end of the country to the other. We are all equal inheritors of our cultural heritage and have equal rights of access to it. (And you don't have to be born in Britain to count as an inheritor of our cultural heritage - mostly it's a world heritage, and anyway if you're here at all you have a right to whatever it takes to integrate in and build British society.)

OK, you all knew that already. Perhaps I am being self-indulgent in setting out the arguments, just getting it straight in my head. Or perhaps it will help one other person answer a library-closer. Or maybe a library-closer will read this. Unlikely, I admit. There are hosts of other good reasons to keep libraries open. This is just for starters. Please add more reasons in the comments.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Well said, Anne! Couldn't have said it better myself. I wish I could say it will help. People who believe they need to make cuts will always begin with the easiest place - and the library us an easy place to start. You can't very well stop funding street cleaning, for example. There would be complaints! And you'd lose votes.

But you never know, someone might be convinced they were wrong, say, "Oh! I hadn't thought of that."

Stroppy Author said...

I agree you can't stop cleaning streets completely. You could add one or two days to the interval between cleaning, though. Partial cuts in many areas would have less impact.

catdownunder said...

I wonder whether those "hobby" gardeners and the like have ever borrowed a book from a library - a gardening book perhaps? Someone I know knits but it wasn't until I pointed out that there were books about knitting in the library that she finally got herself a library card.

Sue Purkiss said...

I think it's very helpful to set out the arguments so clearly and calmly. Will share!

Brian Iles said...

Clever stuff! I'm sure that some of the skeptics or even believers who tick off the page 1 list will be persuaded to at least have second thoughts when the counter arguments open up to them. Or am I a cock-eyed optimist?!

Anonymous said...

A clearly set of counter arguments to deliver to library closers and others of the meh persuasion. Will share.

Nicola Morgan said...

Yes to all that.

Interesting that, at a launch of the Reading Well scheme (which had been taken up by 90% of public libraries even before the official launch) young people themselves made the heartfelt-sounding point that we need libraries and books because we can TRUST them more than the internet. They said they wanted a place to find information that they'd know was worth listening to.