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January 20, 2011



Your accounting is off here - we would have to give everyone born a kindle, and have appropriate projects to ensure digital access to the various resources held in libraries, on a continuing basis. Digital archiving is not generally taken seriously enough for the long term, and is not properly understood yet. By contrast, libraries do actually store books, and provide a continuity with the past that isn't feasible yet. They are also easy to use in a way which the immature technology of computers is not.

In any case, libraries, as a physical place, can help people who really don't know where to start - you can speak to the librarians, and they will give you leaflets, tell you about sources of information, etc.

Finally, electronic devices are not great substitutes for books - they have different advantages and disadvantages.

John Terry's Mum

Seems a managerialist PoV -- let's instead look the effects these technologies have on consciousness and human relations. I recommend Jaron Lainer's "you are Not a Gadget" for a good overview of a minority view of the dangers of technology.

"The ideal is to create a completely fragmented atomized society where everybody is totally alone, doing nothing but trying to pursue created wants" Noam Chomsky


I primarily use the library to get children's books for my daughter. Kindle could never replace the children's libraries.


What about kids books? Or books containing large numbers of photos especially in colour (for instance on art history). What about the vast number of in copyright but out of print books that libraries carry? What about the other things libraries hold besides books: local newspaper archives, microfiche records, pamphlets, etc?

Not a very considered argument really is it?


"They offer a non-commercial public space."

I think this is the key sentence of this piece, and provides a complete answer to the question "are these benefits really so great as to have a net present value of over £90bn?"


"people who want to read books that are in copyright will have to pay for them whereas they currently get them for free. But should tax-payers really subsidize such a taste?"

Entire point of public libraries right there.


A core problem is the premise that LIBRARY BOOK=KINDLE BOOK. There's a lot you would need to advance to establish that the two can be treated as equivalents. Until then the logic in your argument remains weak.

As far as I can see the argument should be based on USAGE. How much do people use libraries? Is there wide usage or is it just a teeny-tiny minority of the population?

In short: What's Kindle got to do with it?


Tax-payers subsidise the cost of libraries. People go to libraries to {insert motive reason X}. So tax-payers are (in part) subsidising the {X} of these people.

I suppose for some reasons inserted, this could sound pretty inflammatory: get radicalised by propaganda / stalk people on the internet / etc. Organisations like the Tax Payers Alliance get storms in teacups over the triple-exclamation-mark idea that the decent, honest, regular, law-abiding Tax Payer is (in part) funding these activities. Why do my taxes pay for Parks And Gardens, when those places are used for Dogging and Cottaging?

But we can discriminate intentions from consequences, and several comments aren't convinced that the sole intentions for libraries is to provide books-and-information. Consider the following inserted value of X, above:

"to save having to heat their properties"

While the Taxpayers Alliance might get storm-cupped over the idea of rich people's incomes being subsidised (in part) by the taxpayer, I suspect that the following is a much less incendiary outlook:

Tax-payers subsidise the cost of heating libraries. People on fixed incomes go to libraries to save having to heat their properties. So tax-payers are (in part) subsidising the heating of these people.

That sounds good to me. Is this benefit really so great as to have a net present value of over £90bn? I don't know, it depends on the present value of helping to heat all these people's homes, and whether its more efficient to heat one library or lots of individual homes etc. Either way, the free-books-and-information angle is a pretty narrow construal.


Your accounting is off here - we would have to give everyone born a kindle

YES. Also, you couldn't just give everyone a Kindle. You'd need to give everyone a Kindle every five years (estimate), because they'd wear out or get broken or lost. So that's £9 billion every five years, or double what we're currently spending on libraries.

Chris E

"But offsetting this is the fact that they can get a vast range of literature on it immediately and for free - a better range than is available in most rather tatty libraries."

The most thumbed through books in the library are kids books, and books in the local ethnic section - I don't see Kindle replacing either soon.

There are also loads of things that happen in a library apart from the actual lending of books - it's just that as someone who works regular hours, you'd never see them. Most larger libraries host lots of events whose primary target is the elderly and mothers with young children.

So that's double what libraries would cost, for a fraction of their benefits.


There is a lot of very rich authors around maybe they should save them?


@ Ajay, Marcin - thanks. If e-readers are so short-lived, that would overturn my numbers.
But, isn't it possible that the price and quality of e-readers will fall? Isn't it also possible that libraries other functions (local history, newspaper archives) could be shifted to museums or digitized?
If so, wouldn't there come a time when libraries are obsolete?
What I'm asking is: are libraries a necessary, permanent feature of society, or just a response to particular technological conditions which will sometime not exist?
(I'm not convinced by the childrens' books argument. Tax-payer resources should be diverted towards those kids whose parents don't introduce them to books, not to those whose do.)


who's going to pay to digitize all the rare volumes 50 years old that are only used once a year by a researcher?

Grumbly Misanthropist

(I'm not convinced by the childrens' books argument. Tax-payer resources should be diverted towards those kids whose parents don't introduce them to books, not to those whose do.)

As a taxpayer who does not use libraries, the over-riding reason for my continued willingness to pay for them is that they allow people access to the accumulated intellectual capital of humanity if they can be bothered. Bothered to want to know, bothered to want to read, and bothered to get off their arses to walk somewhere and get these things for free.

Parents who wish to introduce their children to the joy of reading, but who are not fortunate enough to afford a library of their own are exactly the people to whom taxpayer's money is most effectively diverted. Not because they are the most deserving (although they are), but because it might actually make a beneficial difference.

Whereas ignorantly throwing other people's money at ignorant people who wish to remain so and don't care if their children are ignorant too, seems to me, to be the height of folly. If someone has no thirst for even basic knowledge, what can we buy them to make things better? A Kindle?

You're taking the piss.

Tim Almond

There's also the question of the value of people's time. If you have to go to a library to collect and return a book (paying for 4 bus trips or 2 loads of petrol and parking) then what does that cost over a book being delivered straight to your home or by an e-reader?


See also


"In a world of here-today-gone-later-today Tweets, status updates and blogs, of over-edited wikis and rambling forum posts, of eye strain and backache, nothing beats the feeling of slumping in an easy chair and relishing a good book. Even moreso when it's one that you can no longer buy in the shops; when taxpayers before you and the enlightened collection policy of your local library today ensures that some gems survive, slightly worn with a creased sleeve but otherwise In Good Condition."

Emph. added.

(And before you start on the "ah, but should taxpayers' money..." track, let me just say Trident. Trident Trident Trident. Trident Trident Trident Afghanistan Trident. I rest my case.)


This irritatingly underpowered blog software appears to have lost my emphases. No matter:

"when *taxpayers before you and the enlightened collection policy of your local library today ensures that some gems survive*"

Emph. added.


The English books is my local library have gradually reduced in the past few years to make way for access to computers and to supply eastern Europeans with a reasonably large library of their own.

However the children's area has stayed the same size.

My library is used 5 nights a week as a public place for some public gatherings such as the local writers club, poets corner etc. It's not a large place to meet but accommodates around 20 people. I have yet to hear anyone, book reader or not, say we don't need it.

What has been said is that, in a small town, the amount of space given to the relevant council duties such as tax, planning, roads is excessive.

Jeremy Poynton

I like libraries. Love browsing the shelves and finding books of interest I didn't know about.

I can't afford to buy books or indeed, a Kindle.

So all my reading is done courtesy of the library. I borrow about a book a week.

I hate reading blocks of script on screens. I have poor eyesight, and it becomes a struggle after a while to concentrate on the type.

Libraries are an indicator of a healthy society.


We shouldn't have to think about the value of libraries. (The Kindle argument is a diversion; most ebooks have to be bought to be downloaded, charity shops provide a cheaper source of literature). The terms of the debate should be over the need for the provision of collective community resources in addition to, rather than instead of, widely distributed individual resources.

Libraries are an essential part of any decentralised community network and are used widely for other purposes - community group meetings, voluntary sector organisations, adult education, etc. It is a huge irony that whilst the rhetoric on the big society looms large, the actual infrastructure that would enable it to function is being stripped out.

Phil Ruse

So they can't read any great literature after the 1930's? Eh? If a Conservative had said "But should tax-payers really subsidize such a taste?" you'd have been all over them!

Paul Sagar

"But are these benefits really so great as to have a net present value of over £90bn? I’m puzzled."

In short, yes.

Don't forget the enormous value that libraries have in offering safe, warm, quiet spaces for people to just sit in. Ours is increasingly a society where all space is privately owned. The poor and disposesed - who may have family troubles, or no family at all - have fewer and fewer places they can go where they are safe, welcome but can (if they choose) remain private and keep themselves to themselves.

Along with all the advantages you list, the provision of such spaces is very important, and libraries strike me as - in cold, damp Britain - the last free public spaces for those who need them.

Also, Charlotte Gore is a complete fucktard, so if you ever find yourself agreeing with her that's a sure-fire indication that you need to revise your position.

Mr Ulster

If the issue was just about books, then yes public libraries appear as an expensive subsidy. But libraries can (and many do) offer a public good, namely in form of related activities. My favourite is the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana: http://www.acpl.lib.in.us/index.html which includes a comprehensive genealogical research collection. It also has working-person friendly hours (open to 9pm M-R), which is over the head of most libraries I've encountered in Northern Ireland.

Put another way, libraries should see themselves as main venues of as much local art, literature and culture as possible. And don't cry, "We have no funds"; guest readers, lectures can draw in the audiences.

Thus libraries retain their public good relevance and there is no comparison with a digital slate (or dead trees).

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