Charlotte Gore wonders what is the point of saving public libraries. I share her puzzlement.
Put it this way. Spending on libraries is around £1bn a year. At current (low) real interest rates, this means the present value of all future spending is around £100bn.
But we could give everyone in the country a Kindle or similar for £9bn. So, why not close all libraries, give everyone a Kindle and save £91bn - and raise a few billion by selling off the library buildings to boot?
Of course, many people who go to libraries are technophobes who’ll struggle to get used to a Kindle. 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.
And of course, 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?
I suspect the answer to my question lies in the fact that public libraries offer benefits other than books. They give internet access to those who lack it (but why not give it to them directly instead?). They offer a non-commercial public space. They give a (small) subsidy to authors. They collect valuable resources on local history. They signal that we as a society value reading. And even I get some aesthetic pleasure from there being a library rather than some shop in its place, and so on.
But are these benefits really so great as to have a net present value of over £90bn? I’m puzzled.