So, I should probably not let today go by without commenting on the library news of the day. It seems that British children’s author Terry Deary told The Guardian that public libraries are no longer relevant and spoke out against them at a council meeting. He believes that people should have to go out and buy their own books if they want to read them, that public libraries hurt authors, the publishing industry, and bookstores. He believes that schools provide access to literature for children and that grown-ups should basically pay up and shut up. By the way, do you know how many teachers and students come into my library in a week looking for things they can’t get at the school? You can find the full article at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/feb/13/libraries-horrible-histories-terry-deary?CMP=twt_gu , if you care to read the ramblings of a mad man whose opinions have no basis in fact or reality.
What I can tell you is what I see, every day. First, let’s talk about books since that seems to be his main concern. I do not believe that public libraries hurt book sales. First of all, libraries actually do buy the books that are on their shelves, they don’t get them for free. A great number of library patrons use the library as a way of discovering new authors and the proceed to go out and buy books by the same author. These are books they never would’ve purchased had they not discovered something new at their public library. Many of the books that I own are ones that I first read in a library and then decided that I wanted to own. Come to think of it, most of what was on my Christmas list was books that I had first seen at the library. I have personally spoke to many library patrons, young and old, adult and child, who have become book owners and lovers because of their public library. As author Neil Gaiman responded via Twitter today, “libraries make readers. They don’t starve authors.”.
But really, whether or not people buy books or not because of libraries is really irrelevant. Who cares? Because the whole argument assumes two things. One, that everyone can afford to buy books, and that simply is not true. Two, that public libraries are only about giving people free books to read, which is also not true. Books are not cheap, even if you wait for them to come out in paperback. A voracious reader could spend hundreds of dollars a month on books, if they had the money. You know a lot of people with that kind of extra money? I don’t. So, would Mr. Deary like us to limit the joy, education, inspiration, entertainment, and knowledge that can benefit readers to only those that can come up with the dough?
The public library is a great equalizer, and not only when it comes to books. Libraries offer so much more to their communities. And I’m not just talking about the story hours, early literacy activities, summer reading programs, computer classes, art classes, art exhibits, guest speakers, book discussions, exercise classes, teen groups, and other activities. I won’t even start on all the proven benefits that those activities provide… What about computers and internet access? No Mr. Deary, not everyone can afford that either. And no Mr. Deary, they are not just using the computers to check their Facebook page. I have personally seen the computers in my small public library used to write resumes, fill out job applications, prepare for GED exams, take online courses, do research for school assignments, find health information, and so much more. What would those people do if they couldn’t go to the library to use a computer? What would their options be for getting the information they need to better their life? What about the experts, yes those librarians (the greatest advocates for books and authors by the way) that you would send to the unemployment line? What would those same people do when confronted with an overload of information and opportunities but no one to help them figure out how to find and access the right ones? Going back to Neil Gaiman again, “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.”.
We live in a time when information is abundant and literacy (of all types – basic, health, digital, financial, etc) is more crucial than ever. When we limit access to literacy we limit the opportunities that individuals have to grow, learn, and prosper. When we limit access to only those that can afford it, we widen the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Public libraries are not about “sentimentality” Mr. Deary, they are about creating a place where everyone is truly equal, with equal access, and equal opportunity. Where all books are welcome. Yes, even yours Mr. Deary. Because public libraries do not believe in censorship, they do not believe in limited access, they believe in open discourse and freedom of information. They are the great equalizers and the foundation of a truly democratic society.
So Mr. Deary, who cares what you think?