My good friend Alana Ward tweeted a link this morning to an article in The Bookseller about Terry Deary's comments on libraries. It's a simplistic argument and so I thought it deserved at least a simplistic retort. Firstly though let's not forget that Deary has written a very successful string of books (over 200), and he has undoubtably contributed to increasing and encouraging children's knowledge of and love of history. Terry Deary is the author of the Horrible Histories series. Despite his poorly formed opinions, we can not take that away from him. So, what does Mr Deary have to say? In reaction to Sunderland Council's need to save money and investigation of library closures he has called the support of libraries by many authors as mere sentimentality describing libraries as a "Victorian idea". He then goes on to say, "The book is old technology and we have to move on, so good luck to the council."
I appreciate that the concept of public libraries as we know it does indeed spring from a Victorian concept but I think is a glib simplistic comment. Libraries, of course have been around in one form or another for thousands and years and the desire to store and share knowledge is not a new one. The advent of the printing press and the democratisation of knowledge and stories with the cheaply available book started us on the road to a concept where everyone could and should be able to read for pleasure and information. That in the 19th Century we were enlightened enough to begin to create a structure where people could freely and easily borrow these things, is a major milestone in the development of modern society.
It is very easy to say that with the internet, everyone and anyone can get this stuff online and libraries have ceased to fulfil a need in this space. However, I believe it is very dim witted and short sighted indeed. If you open your eyes and look around you it is plain to see that companies are moving to control this information and make it available as part of a business model which results in profits being the driver for access to reading whether it be for pleasure or knowledge. Without the existence of a public library system, whether it be a physical space or an online access point, we will very quickly move back to a society of haves and have nots. Those that can afford to pay the $1, $2 or $10 for a digital book or digital information will have. Those that cannot, will be left out in the cold. That Amazon has moved to control the ability to resell e-books, effectively creating a second hand market and controlling this market in one swoop, should stand as a warning to us all of what road we are heading down if Libraries no longer exist. The purchase price for e-books make seem quite cheap now, but if there are no free alternatives, if there is no means of regulating this, how cheap will they really be in the future?
Lastly, I do need to pick up on Terry Deary's comment on the book being old technology. The book is not old technology, the book is a means of disseminating an idea, concept or story. Paper bound books may be old technology, albeit a very efficient one that does not rely on ongoing energy production and consumption to enjoy it. However the book itself continues to develop and serve a need whether in physical form, e-book form, or I suspect multimedia form in the future. Even the term multimedia seems wrong to me, but I hope you understand what I am saying. For my money, printed books will continue to exist for some time and maybe forever and I have no issue with this concept, even though most of my professional efforts go into ensuring we can meet the growing need for the digital version of books.
I have no direct knowledge of Sunderland's needs and can and will not pass any comment on the wisdom or validity of their plans. However, I do hope that those engaging in debate and discussion around it, will at least contribute in a meaningful way, unlike Mr Deary. His history of off the wall comments such as those on historians being "nearly as seedy and devious as politicians" surely has lessened his credentials as a social commentator however his profile still serves to give him a voice where surely none is warranted.