Monday, March 4, 2013

Have libraries had their day?

Author Terry Deary

Recently Terry Deary, a successful British author, argued that public libraries should be closed. This has sparked a rather interesting online debate about libraries and their relationship with authors, communities, and the public's money.

Deary, who writes quite fun and interesting history books for children, said that the whole concept behind public libraries is obsolete and damaging. He said, “We've got 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."

You can read Deary’s argument here. In it, he condemns libraries for injuring the publishing industry, closing bookstores, and taking money out of authors' pockets.

Several other authors have responded to these comments, usually in ways that are heartening in their support for libraries. Science fiction author John Scalzi wrote lovingly about his lifelong relationship with public libraries in this article.

Alan Jacobs, who writes for The American Conservative (not exactly a bastion of support for publicly-funded agencies) wrote an essay that specifically counters Deary’s argument that compulsory education has made libraries obsolete. “I was not the beneficiary of a very good education in the Birmingham city schools,” he writes. “Most of what I now know that I consider worth knowing I learned not at school but at these libraries.”

(An aside:  no matter how you feel about this issue, you must check out some of the priceless dissenting comments to The American Conservative article. I especially like the one that says, “As far as I can tell [libraries are] mostly crappy government bureaucracies that provide work for the unemployable whackjobs who come out of Universities. Welfare for half-educated feminists.” I beg to differ: I am a highly educated unemployable feminist whackjob.)

Both Scalzi and Jacobs emphasize the importance of libraries in developing the reading habits of children, and they’re right. Library storytimes and programs emphasize to kids that reading is fun, not just homework. Reading is not a thing that you have to do in order to get a good grade; it is not always educational in an obvious way. Let us put a Captain Underpants book in your child’s hands, and you might end up with a student who likes books - even school books.

There are plenty of other things in Deary's argument that I would challenge, including the idea that libraries "give nothing back" to authors. (Does he not realize that we buy all these books?  With real money?)

But that's enough of my opinions.  If you have thoughts about this issue, now’s your chance to let us know. Do libraries cost more than they give back? Are they obsolete? Are there things libraries should be doing differently? Join the debate; tell us what you think in the comments.


  1. Among many, many reasons that libraries are not and cannot become obsolete: In the States, we expect the public to have access to the information it needs to vote as wisely as possible on current and emerging topics. Not only does the information have to be available to all community members rich and poor alike, said members have to be literate enough to understand and access it. This translates to supporting the enjoyment of literacy with media of all kinds.

  2. Good point! These articles emphasize libraries' services to children, but libraries are repositories of information that adults need, too.

  3. I am so proud to be an unemployable whackjob!! But what does that make the idiots in Congress???

  4. Authors who are just getting started will give copies of their books to libraries - just to give them a start with the reading public. A parent who can afford it will buy a child's favorite book - one they have found first in the library. These are examples of how libraries enhance the sale of books. Wyma R.

  5. I use the libraries for a multitude of reasons. My primary use is to see if I like the book. If the book is enjoyable, I usually end up buying it. So, the author not only makes money from the library purchase, but also from my subsequent purchase