From Amazon to ebooks: are libraries outdated?

Sunday 19 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Hammerson Room, Barbican Contemporary Controversies

In a world of Kindles and free downloads, do we really need physical places to house books? Last November, children’s favourite Terry Deary controversially demurred from the consensus that public libraries are necessarily a Good Thing, arguing this ‘Victorian idea’ has to evolve, and that giving out e-readers would be cheaper than keeping libraries open. He was roundly denounced by fellow authors who described his views as ‘downright irresponsible’ and ‘ignorant twaddle’. Ironically, though, Deary’s belief that libraries must become part of the electronic age seems to be shared by many librarians. Only a small percentage of their funds is spent on books; the majority is spent on computers, DVDs, computers and e-readers.

Other changes beyond technology also seem to be chipping away at the core purpose of libraries. When Malala Yousafzai opened Birmingham’s new library in 2013, she inspiringly declared: ‘Aristotle’s words are still breathing, Rumi’s poetry will always inspire and Shakespeare’s soul will never die.’ And yet even here, books are only one aspect of the new library’s purpose. One leaflet tells young people, ‘relax and read or chat with friends in the Chill Out Lounge’, while others advertise art and performance events, health and wellbeing projects, a recording studio, music rehearsal rooms and help with job hunting. This conversion of every local library into a municipal ‘one-stop shop’, dubbed witheringly by Jeanette Winterson as ‘a community centre with books’, is now ubiquitous.

Perhaps there is nothing intrinsically wrong with using the public library to offer other services, from careers advice to a café. But critics see a defensive desire to get more people through the door as undermining libraries’ core function: promoting literature and making available out-of-print, classic and quality contemporary material. And without such a distinct role, how can libraries be defended in an era of public funding cuts? As Newcastle City Council explained when announcing over £7million of cuts to the local authority’s library services: ‘Faced with agonising decisions about child protection, care for the elderly and emptying bins, where do libraries, leisure centres and culture rank? I think we all know the answer.’ While howls of outrage greet such pronouncements, can we confidently defend libraries without a clear sense of what they are for? Can we look to the historic purpose of libraries to reinvigorate the ideals of the home of ‘free literature and knowledge for all’ without resorting to what Deary described as ‘gush’ and ‘sentimentality’? Have libraries had their day, or can they be saved without sacrificing the books at their heart?

Listen to the debate:

Ian Anstice
editor, Public Libraries News

James Raven
professor of modern history, University of Essex; author, Oxford Illustrated History of the Book (forthcoming)

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert
educator, writer, doctoral researcher

Tim Worstall
journalist; senior fellow, Adam Smith Institute; author, 23 Things We Are Telling You About Capitalism

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Produced by
Elisabetta Gasparoni teacher; convenor of the Future Cities Project Readers’ Group
Recommended readings
On Libraries and the Public Sphere

Address to the First Provost's Faculty Scholarship Dinner Art Gallery, Rider University March 9, 2004

John Buschman, University of Idaho, 9 March 2004

Future Library Kate Paterson, Future Library,

Will digitisation destroy libraries or make us stronger?

Digitising books collaboratively allows libraries to share the burden of preservation without jealously hoarding the same stock

Simon Chaplin, Guardian,

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