Feb 8, 2011

“Who needs libraries? Books are so cheap!”

Book stacks
Photo Credit

As most of you are probably aware, there have been a lot of debates going on lately about the value and function of public libraries. As a library student in the UK at this particular moment in time, I have been inevitably exposed to a good share of them. The following comments are more general than specific, though, in the sense that they have more to do with some of the general attitudes towards reading that have emerged in these conversations than with the specifics of the current situation.

Most people are almost instinctively supportive of public libraries, which is certainly heartening. Yet you also frequently hear things like, “Are libraries really necessary when books are so affordable, especially second hand books? Why do people feel entitled to getting them for free anyway?” First and foremost, this kind of comment denotes a lot of ignorance about what libraries do beyond lending books to people. I’m not going to go there because plenty of people have written about it better than I could – though I do believe that this point alone is more than enough to thump all these arguments. Still, I wanted to focus on what this kind of comment says about the way the act and the habit of reading are perceived, and specifically on what is being taken for granted about this habit.

What people say about the availability of cheap books here is true enough. Coming from somewhere where the average paperback costs €16 and where used bookshops are largely unheard of, I am in awe of how affordable books are in the UK. At the moment I’m a full time graduate student living solely on my savings and a meagre student’s loan, in a country in which the cost of living is quite higher than in my home country. To put it briefly, I live considerably below what has been defined as the poverty line. Still, in only four months I have managed to fill my flat with books – and no, not at the expense of essentials like meals. Yet I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that this means that public libraries are not necessary.

There are many reasons why buying used books is easy for me, but probably quite difficult for some other people. First of all, I didn’t grow up in poverty, but rather in a middle class home full of books. I suspect that more than with income, these things have to do with sociocultural background; with people feeling that they have the right to have access to literary culture. It has to do with feeling comfortable and knowledgeable and competent around books; with knowing you enjoy them and going out to seek them on your own. A lot of people don’t feel that way at all, and a library breaks down those perceived psychological barriers a lot more easily than even the cheapest of used bookshops ever could.

To walk into a bookshop, or even to approach the bookshelves in a charity shop, you have to have an idea of what you want. I don’t mean having a specific title in mind – I mean having at least an idea that there are books out there that you might want to read. Money, even as little as 50p, is a commitment. I notice, for example, that I only buy used books that I know I want to read, regardless of how cheap they are. I’m much more likely to be adventurous at the library. The act of buying something can be intimidating, which makes me wonder: what happens to people who are so outside a culture of literacy that they don’t quite know what they want to read? Will they walk into a charity shop and pick randomly from the shelf marked 50p? Somehow I just don’t see that happening.

This also means that people are much more likely to stick to their
reading comfort zones if buying is at all involved. How many of you immediately think of the library when you decide to try out a new genre, for example? Would you be as likely to give the same books a try if you had to buy them, even if they were available used? Not to mention that you can’t find just anything at a charity shop or used bookshop. Not for those incredibly low prices people keep going on about anyway. Finding newly released books used is pretty rare – and I really don’t think it’s fair to just say, “Well, if you can’t afford it, tough luck”. Specialised technical books, which are quite expensive new, also tend to be expensive used – if you can find them at all. And people who have niche interests aren’t likely to be able to pursue them if they have to buy every book on their topic of interest (I know I wouldn’t have read nearly as much about Victorian feminism, for example, if not for libraries). You can’t even begin to compare the selection of a used bookshop or charity shop to that of even a small public library system.

Then there’s young readers. Children in particular are not likely to be able to freely decide where to spend their money, even if they do have pocket money – which isn’t at all a given. They will not buy books for themselves for “only” 50p, not unless their parents encourage them to do it or do so for them. And a lot of parents won’t, for many different reasons. But those same parents are much more likely to be receptive when their public library reaches out to them – which it will. Because that’s what libraries do: unlike bookshops, they don’t just sit there waiting for those who are already knowledgeable and have clear ideas about what they want to come to them. They reach out and attempt to include people in a myriad of different ways.

I realise I’m preaching to the choir here, but I needed to get this off my chest. This is one of the things people mean when they say libraries are one of the bastions of democracy – only sometimes I fear that this phrase has become so spent that a lot of people don’t pause to think about what it means anymore. And the result is comments as thoughtless and absurd as “We don’t need libraries; books are so cheap!”. We’re talking about social justice and inclusion here. We’re talking about disseminating a culture of reading instead of restricting it to those who were born into it. The bookselling industry can’t ever do that to the same extent that libraries do.


  1. You know, I've never heard that particular argument in the states, but perhaps that's because books AREN'T that cheap here. Even in Half Price Books, I pay $6-$7 for a paperback unless it's in really bad condition or has been sitting on the shelves too long and has gone to clearance. Full price in stores, they can cost between $15 and $20, and hardbacks are $20 to $25. Plus libraries are so much more than books here. They are internet hubbubs now (since we don't have internet cafes), they teach classes in a ton of different subjects, they host book clubs and show movies and have children's events and story times and a million other things. If I remember right from when Jackie talked about this last year, libraries in the UK don't diversify this way? Is that true? I wonder if they might get a better reputation if they branched out a little?

  2. Amanda: They DO diversify in the same way here, but the impression I get from these conversations is that the other things they do aren't nearly as well-known by the public at large as in the US. Being in library school I hear about them all the time, but it seems that some people, even bookish people like Jackie, haven't. That's certainly a problem in itself - perhaps more marketing is needed?

  3. I use my local libraries primarily for audio books (necessary to endure my commute!) which are certainly not cheap.

    The other thing I like about libraries is that I'm not a huge re-reader. I do lend books out, but if I owned every book I read (or listened to) I'd have half my house filled with books. While this was a goal when I was in college, the very impractical side has more than shown it's nasty head in recent years with three moves in five years. (Nothing makes you decide if you REALLY love a book like putting it in a box that you will carry up a flight of stairs!)

    So now I only buy a book (to keep, I do trade many) if I really, really think I will love it. So, libraries are a great resource for the others.

    And to your point about children, I read so much as a kid, I can't imagine what would have happened without my local library. There is no way my parents could have afforded my book appetite!

  4. World Lily: :)

    Elisabeth: That's a GREAT point about audio books. They're certainly not cheap, and for people with visual disabilities for example, that might be the only way to read.

  5. You make some very interesting and well rounded points about why people should be using the library that I had not thought about before.

    I admit that I buy a lot of books rather than use the library, but I do encourage the children in my home and the children that I watch to go to the library and pick from their myriad offerings. As a matter of fact, we are going to the library tomorrow, and having read your position in this post, I may just grab a few thing for myself!

  6. I know my reading would be a lot more narrow if I didn't have libraries to use when I want to try something new. And used bookstores- at least in my area- seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate. I have to drive half an hour to get to the nearest one, and for me that's inconvenient enough that I haven't gone there in over six months. So really cheap books aren't all over the place, either. We need our libraries!

  7. Hello, Ana. I come from a third world country and yet I do consider myself fortunate that there are lots of secondhand bookshops here where I can pick good books at a fraction of the price for a new one. And you're right. You go to a shop with a kind of anticipation, of that "something" you have to look and commit for. And it's not easy especially if you're on a budget. I am still envious, I mean ENVIOUS of other places in the world that has a working public library. Back in college, my university probably had the widest selection of books in varied subjects and I thoroughly enjoyed having my library card used at the end of the semester. But after I graduated, I missed having that freedom to go somewhere I can read or request for books. Sure, there are tons of cheaper stuff in secondhand bookshops, but given the chance I'd rather go to a good public library, which obviously is lacking on my side of the world. So I'm with you on this. Social justice indeed. I'm so with you on this (yes, even if I haven't been to a library in ages). It's the lack of libraries here that make me feel (more) the disparity between first world countries like the UK and US and where I live. Well, at least one example of disparity (as I don't want to go into other issues that eh, the world faces). Sorry for rambling.

  8. A library card is truly a ticket to the wide world - and it's the best bargain going. When I was a broke young mother, raising three little girls, the library was our Mecca - air conditioning, comfy chairs, and all the treasures in the world FOR FREE - not just books, but also films, art, newspapers, magazines, music, and outstanding research facilities. Carry on, Ana - librarians are the guardians of a free society, whether society honors them or not.

  9. I know you think you're preaching to the converted here, Ana, but you would be surprised by the vast number of bookish folk who don't use their libraries, who would rather sit on their behinds, who haven't (despite being computer-literate) caught on to the fact that you can reserve and renew books online. I wouldn't read 80% of the new releases I review if I hadn't been able to get them at the library. I can't afford new hardbacks, nor do I have any more room on my shelves for them.

    My children wouldn't read half as much if they didn't have access to the library. Folk I know who don't have internet access at home (yes, some folk don't) can access it at the library, story time, book clubs, help with job applications etc - what irks me the most is that it is certainly a case of "I'm all right Jack" - grr...better stop ranting now!

  10. Hello Nymeth! (I'm still here!)
    Thank you for the insight. I had no idea that there was a debate about the value of libraries. I cannot imagine people not understanding their value... maybe also because books are nowhere near that cheap around here :)
    I'm more concerned about library censorship, still happening way too often :(
    (By the way, you reminded me that I need to register with the local library again...)

  11. Wonderful post! As someone who basically lived at the library as a kid, I can attest to how important they are. We had tons of books at home, but I went through them so quickly that I went to the library almost everyday. Now I still go to the library at least once a week and I use it mainly for audiobooks. At $30 to $50 a pop there's no way I could afford to listen to as many books as I do if I had to buy them.

  12. Ahem. At first, I thought in the title you wanted to be sarcastic!
    Books aren't cheap at all here. Most new releases are at least €18-20, even if they have a soft cover instead of a hardback. It still bugs me that a new hardback is €12-13 max if bought at BookDepository, but if you buy the Italian translation of the book at a local bookseller it's €20-25 at the very least. Of course, there's VAT, but that's only 4% for books. And BookDepository delivers books to you from England, for Pete's sake. True, you can buy books at the supermarket for about 15-20% off the list price, but they only keep bestsellers or books from big publishers there.

    I practically lived in the library during the summer, until I entered university (and still would live there, if I didn't have to work). The librarian used to say that I should bring a hammock for myself and sleep there, lol, I was there so often.

    There's no way I could buy even half of the books I want to read. And even if I could, I wouldn't even think of trying some of the books I find when I randomly browse the library shelves (or the library catalogue, now that it's online) and decide I could try and see if I like them.

    Long live the libraries.

  13. I forgot to mention: it's not easy at all to buy used books in Italy, except maybe for textbooks for secondary schools, which are so damn expensive that many people try to buy them second hand and/or sell them at the end of the year.

  14. I'm glad you chose to elaborate on this! Your perspective on the essential components of libraries is so important and is a great argument, and I think I'll link to your post from mine if that's okay. I can see why people aren't supporting their libraries, but you've articulated just why they should.

  15. Zibilee: I hope you and your children enjoy your library trip tomorrow, and that you find a real gem for yourself!

    Jeane: Yes, very good point. There are quite a few charity shops that sell books near me, but that's not true of every place at all.

    Lightheaded: We grew up in similar circumstances - my first library card was my university one. I do have access to an excellent library system now, but I remember that envy so well. I agree with you that lack of libraries are at the heart of social disparity. Of course other issues like poverty are not to be neglected, but as I keep hearing in my classes, libraries can be an engine of economic regeneration in themselves.

    Mumsy: I love the image that put in my head, of you and little Jenny and little indie and social sisters making your way to the library :D

    Treez, rant away! I hope my post does make at least a little bit of a difference even among an audience of bookish folks. And very true about internet access - people so often seem to forget not everyone even OWNS a computer. I know well about all those library activities you mentioned, and it has surprised me that a lot of people don't seem aware of their existence at all. Could it be a communication/publicity issue?

    Scribacchina: Hello! Always good to hear from you :D Having grown up without easy access to books myself, it does surprise me how much libraries are taken for granted.

    Avid Reader: As a kid I'd read the same books again and again because my parents couldn't afford to get me more - and it's not that I only owned one or two! A library would have made such a difference to me.

    Alessandra: Sadly it's a real argument, though my own use of it is on the sarcastic side :P Italy sounds a lot like Portugal when it comes to the price and availability of books. Long live libraries indeed!

    Meghan: Link away! Just so you know, what made me write this post wasn't your own post - which I thought was thoughtful and sensible and acknowledged the other roles of a library - but clicking on a Twitter hashtag earlier today. The discussion had to do with a BBC programme I wasn't listening to, but some people were saying the craziest, most privileged and insensitive things :\

  16. Having worked in a library myself, it was the senior citizens on a lower income just looking for something to do, the people wanting to learn English (ESL books and courses aren't cheap!), parents wanting to help their children with homework (math textbooks also not 50 cents), especially the parents getting the ESL books for themselves and then the storybooks for their children, so they can learn English more easily and earlier. (Picture books are darned expensive too, especially for something that's quick to read. It's easy to talk in the New York Times or wherever about the importance of magical illustrations in picture books, but who can afford them? Rich New York Times reading parents, not the kids who need them to be inspired to learn to read, against all the challenges they face.) If learning a new language itself is the barrier, how are they supposed to go to a bookstore and know what to get or even what to ask for? The other types of books that were popular in the library where I worked (a poorer neighbourhood) was how-to books. They needed to know how to fix their cars, etc. It's not just a matter of being able to afford books -- books open a doorway to everything. They enable you to learn how to live a more meaningful more independent life, rather than simply doing what's been done before.

    Our library also taught computer courses for seniors and people new to Canada especially, who didn't have a clue how to use email or the internet. We hosted ESL classes and conversation clubs. Who else is going to teach them if they can't afford it, what good is a society that would have them sit at home, unable to communicate or understand the world they now live in? And at a purely economic level, illiteracy slows work down and loses money. (Can you tell I used to write the library newsletter, I'm used to doing a bit of 'ra ra libraries' writing myself!)

    One neat program our library did in conjunction with certain poorer schools and the police was a program called 'It's a Crime Not to Read', where a police officer would come and read stories to the kids and then there would be books the kids could check out, right at the school. The kids loved it and it gave them a more positive view of both reading and the police. That's not an experience you can buy in a used bookshop, but it's something the government can give through the libraries.

  17. I hadn't realised how much cheaper books were over here to other countries. That has stunned me really. I thought that we would be more expensive than America, but after reading Amanda's comment, I can see that this is not true.
    This is a fantastic post Ana, I can tell you put your heart and soul into it. I couldn't imagine life without a library.

  18. After reading Amanda's comment I don't really have much more to add. Just echoing what she said about the States -- books aren't cheap and libraries provide so much more than books, although that's pretty much all I use them for. I do remember popping into a couple of bookstores while in London and even with the currency conversion being shocked at how cheap books are in the UK. I was really wishing I had more room in my suitcase to bring books home.

  19. There are a lot of books out there that aren't exactly cheap when you buy them new and if you buy them secondhand, you have a hard time getting your hands on exactly what you want. Libraries are and hopefully always will be, the best places in the world.

  20. That's a great point. I know I've tried books from the library that I NEVER would have bought, even if they were just a few cents. Admittedly, most of them were terrible, but a few were great.

    I also loved the tie-with how important libraries are to kids. Children are definitely the heaviest users of the library, at least where I live, and I've always wondered why that is.

  21. Great post, Nymeth. I am appalled by the current threat to libraries. There was a spokesman from some thinktank on Radio 4 on Saturday advocating a return to 19th century subscription libraries, and lending libraries like Boots the chemist used to run (100 years ago). I was nearly incoherent with anger - seriously, this is suggesting a shelf or two of dog-eared paperbacks, as who can imagine Boots opening branch libraries to compete with the public system we own today and which is so under threat? He added, disparagingly, that 'most people only borrowed novels anyway.'

    "Only a novel?" (See Henry Tilney in 'Northanger Abbey')"in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language."

  22. I've actually heard this argument a lot and it infuriates me. When people say, "Let's shut down libraries because books are so affordable," they are displaying a shocking lack of empathy for how the other half lives.
    For single parent families, or a family who has just experienced a layoff, libraries are a godsend.
    For people who love to read and do not have space in their homes for the quantity of reading materials they consume, libraries are a necessity.

  23. Well said, Ana!
    I'm sad that some people just take the public libraries for granted; and I feel libraries is a great place for a child to explore and appreciate books especially at a young age.

    And then, what about those families who couldn't afford to buy books, not even used books?
    Thanks for the wonderful post, Ana!!

  24. There's also the fact that libraries are about so much more than books - they are a community place that is not work nor home, a place to share ideas and learn. They offer resources for research, Internet access (and many cannot afford that these days), early literacy programs for toddlers and preschoolers, and educational programs for people of all ages. Books can be cheap, but how can you put a price tag on all those other things (and that is only a few that come to mind at this moment)?

    Yes, I know, I'm preaching to the choir, too, but I always have to laugh when people ask if my librarian job won't be obsolete soon. As more and more information becomes available in such vast quantities, who better than librarians to help people find the information they can trust? :-)

  25. I love my library! I couldn't have done without my library when I was a little girl -- I mean, no Amazon.com yet to order rare books from, and no money to get the books with anyway. There were books I checked out over and over again (still true), which I'd never have had a chance to learn to love if I hadn't checked them out of the library and read them six times.

    P.S. Bookshelf space! A girl doesn't have unlimited bookshelves!

  26. I think you point about kids is the strongest one. I never bought books when I was little, but I read a ton from the library. Without that, I'm not sure where I would have fed my reading habit, and that would have been too bad.

  27. It is disheartening that so many people only see the library as a place to get that book they want. Libraries offer so much to the public, but people tend to forget that.

  28. The thought of no libraries makes my heart sick. I grew up loving libraries from the age 4 to 42!!! Libraries are so much more than just books, especially this day and age!! Great and thoughtful post!

  29. Lovely post, Ana. Your points about the privilege of feeling comfortable and entitled in a bookish atmosphere is such a good one, and something that NEVER occurred to me before college, when I had to have it explicitly pointed out to me. Coming from that privileged position, and especially feeling like books were more welcoming and easy to get along with than most people as I was growing up, it simply would not have entered my head that others would find the atmosphere of a bookstore a barrier to entry, even apart from the financial concerns.

  30. "Books are so cheap". That is a very smug attitude, because in a lot of countries books are most certainly not cheap, or readily available.

    Libraries are SO essential, I can't even believe that governments want to close them. As a child I relied on the public library for books. My family couldn't afford the luxury of buying them, except as birthday and Christmas gifts.

    I can't afford the lovely big art books, or the fabulous reference books I find at the library, so libraries still play a big role in my reading life.

    Why do governments want to dumb down the population? I think the answer to that is fairly obvious.

    It so burns me that governments can quite happily spend trillions waging war on other countries, but they can't find the money to fund libraries?

    Something is not right with this picture.

  31. This is a great post. I absolutely depend on libraries, not just for pleasure books, but for reference books and research materials. I don't know what I'd do without them. When I was a kid I used to check out 20 books at a time so I could explore every book that looked mildly interesting. My parents could hardly afford the basics, so there is no way they could have fueled my reading habit. Kids grow out of books so quickly that it's really hard for some families to keep up. Besides, libraries are safe places for kids to spend time doing wholesome things. People are always trying to find a way to get kids off the streets, and libraries can be a big part of that.

    To me libraries are some of the most beautiful institutions ever created. Think about it. No-matter who you are, no matter how much money you have, no matter what color your skin is or what gender you are, you can get a library card and check out a book, just like anybody else. You can keep it for just as long as anybody, and you can check it out again later if you need to. Every person has the opportunity to find books that might not be in stores. They have the opportunity to learn, educate themselves, and better their situation. Libraries are democracy in it's purest and most perfect form.

  32. Thanks for writing this post, Nymeth. It's unbelievable to me that so many people take libraries for granted. They're usually the ones who haven't visit their local library in years, so they have no idea what libraries offer nowadays. It would be a shame if it took libraries disappearing for people to realize how important they are.

  33. You have wonderful arguments for libraries. Maybe you should think about going to library school! (ha ha) But seriously, I bet you are the student they all thank their lucky stars to have! :--)

  34. I agree. People tend to experiment more when they borrow books instead of paying full amount for them. I wonder how libraries are free though. I paid 45$ for a one year subscription. Of course it's no where close to what I would spend if I bought books. Libraries tend to be more useful to people who read a lot. If you read only a couple of books per month (which is the case with many people) buying second hand books makes more sense. I LOVE my library but I also understand those who don't want to use it. Plus there are time constrictions too.

  35. I completely agree with you. All my working life has been spent in research, and what I would do without the library, I do not know. And no, good as the internet is, it is no substitute for the library in my academic field. But that isn't really what I want to say in relation to your post. I think you are spot on when you say it's about having the right to approach literature, which can be extremely intimidating to people who haven't had a certain background or education. But even in middle class families, the thing I see in our local library is lots of mothers,dropping in after school with their little children because they can sit in the play area and look at the books to their heart's content. Something you really can't do in a store. They can touch them and share them and read them together - it's lovely to see and must surely promote reading in far better ways than the discipline of school, or the don't touch atmosphere of the store.

  36. I grew up in a lower income home so I needed the library to have books to read. My parents couldn't afford to go and buy many books. I was also dependent upon it for research when I had papers to write.

    I miss my library in the US. I'm not sure where you are in the UK, but I'm in Scotland and the libraries here are really tiny. My local one is only a few hundred square feet. The council is running out of money and so they are closing it and moving it into a room of an existing building and cutting the size in half. It's so sad.

    I do find that books are less expensive here. At the charity shop I can buy paperbacks 5 for 1 pound and many of them are new. I just picked up The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. It's less expensive for me to buy them than to request them from other libraries at 37p. I still love going to the library. I will always be a faithful patron because I agree that they are an important part of society. Thanks for bringing up the topic. I've always felt very passionately about libraries.

  37. What a really great post Ana. You say it so well! I admit to not using my library... but that is because trips get extended, I miss due dates, and incur way too many fines. Once I stop travelling I can definitely see me using it more.

  38. Amen and rah-rah. Nymeth, you and I have had a chat about this before over at Meghan's so I won't rehash, but as a point of interest for the discussion I just wanted to mention that where I live in the UK, used books at charity shops are around £3. That's too expensive on my budget (I miss the North) and it's better for me to pay the 50p reservation charge at the library to have a book transferred in from another branch. It's been a bit of a shock to the system since back when I was employed full-time I didn't think twice about just buying (used) the books I wanted to read; now the budget doesn't allow it. (Strangely, I've rather come to love the feeling of not being bogged down by possessions.) In any case, I've relied mostly on my completely fabulous public library for my reading, and that hasn't hindered my reading habits at all. So to anyway who thinks that even used books are cheap in the UK...that's a blanket statement that doesn't hold water, not when you look at regional pricing and relative income levels.

  39. Libraries are fantastic. I'm going to link to your post on my blog. You make a great argument. I think a lot of what you said crosses borders.

  40. Are libraries actually completely free in the UK? Because in Germany you do have to pay a bit, my library costs 15 euros per year (that's student discount, but it's the more expensive version which allows me to check out dvds and cds as well), or some want you to pay one euro per check out, regardless of how many books you check out. You do get discounts and such if you're a student or under 18 or unemployed though.

    Also, books in Germany aren't all that cheap, and since I read mostly in English, I don't find huge loads of books in second-hand shops. Can't blame anyone for that of course, but the library has a great selection of foreign language books.

    And I'm a poor student as well ;) So I can't really afford to buy all the books I read, not even if I find cheap copies (but those would still come to 3 euros at the least). That's why I don't have a serious book buying problem, no money. It's as simple as that :)

    And nothing beats the feeling of browing the library, knowing you can take with you whatever you want! :)

    I sometimes get the feeling though, that some people who don't come from a middle-class eduated background don't always feel comfortable going to the library either. I know libraries are trying to change that, though.

  41. Right on. Very good points addressing a pretty lazy argument.

    I'm very lucky to be middle class, living in the area which got a few of its libraries funded up before the budget cuts and is close to the new UK 'super library' you might have noticed in the news (and anyone who wants to talk that project down can pretty much go away, look at the lower than low placing of West Mids cities in the recent 'intellectual heirachy' article in The Times which was highly influenced by how much lit culture a city has and then come back and talk about it with me - this is my angry off tangent rant face, it is not directed at you !;)), but I still can't imagine how much of a detriment closing other libraries would have on the rest of the country. You close public sevices and it destroys so much.

    Shopping in charity shops has quite a big stigma attached to in some areas, over here. Poorer peole don't want to look poor, middle class people don't want to look cheap. Thrift shopping being fashionable isn't as big a thing, or as wide spread across geography here as it seems to be in the US (although that's changing I think, more teenagers are embracing charity shop clothes at least). So might we not end up with a lot of cases of people who can't afford full price books and won't 'lose face' buying in charity shops, so don't get exposed to any books outside of education.

  42. I use my library as a place to calm down and centre myself whether I borrow a book or not. I think being in a quiet place surrounded by books is a small luxury when living in a big, busy city. I too grew up surrounded by books but I learnt to read from books I checked out of libraries and I really feel it's an essential space for children.

  43. Carolyn: I can certainly tell you were excellent at writing that newsletter :D Yes, yes, yes to everything you said!

    Vivienne: It's certainly a privilege to have access to affordable books so easily. But like you and everyone else are saying, that's still not enough.

    Christina: It's certainly easy to get carried away with book acquisitions here! I have no idea what I'm going to do when I move back.

    Ladytink: Yes they are!

    heidenkind: It's the same here from what I see - the most frequently borrowed author is Jacqueline Wilson, a children's writer. I'm guessing there are many reasons, one of them being that it's a safe place where parents can take kids, regardless of how much they happen to value literacy and reading as a leisure activity.

    Kathreine Langrish: I don't even know what to say to that :S Apparently someone also actually suggested on BBC "giving free kindles to poor people". A brilliant plan, no doubt. Very fitting Austen quotes, and certainly one of mt favourites from the book!

    Madigan McGillicuddy: Yes, the lack of empathy and the blindness to other people's lack of privilege really get to me as well :\

    Melody: I can't imagine a child having the same opportunities to expand their reading horizons without a library - and I say this having unfortunately grown up without one.

    Darla D: Yes, absolutely! Like I said I wanted this post to be about the assumptions about the habit of reading these conversations reveal, but I think the fact that libraries do SO much else is more than enough to put an end to these silly arguments.

    Jenny: Haha, that too :P My one bookshelf is almost running out of space, which is probably a sign that I need to stop acquiring books and go to the library even more often (but once there, STAY AWAY from the sale shelves :P)

    Kim: And I suspect that having the chance to do that as a kid makes a huge difference as to whether or not you become a lifelong reader!

  44. Trisha: Very true!

    Staci: Hopefully people will remember that before deciding to axe them!

    Emily: This is something that took me a while to realise as well - and yet it's SO important to keep it in mind when it comes to any initiative to spread the love of reading. Librarians as a whole seem to, but the book industry seems much more tailored to those who already feel comfortable in this world.

    Violet: It is very smug, yes :\ Very good point about art books and reference books and SO much more than the majority of people can't afford. Also, I fully agree with you on the questionable priorities of so many governments.

    Emily: I love your second paragraph so much! Perfectly put.

    Vasilly: It would indeed :\

    Jill: Ha :P And that's very kind of you to say, but I'm actually not doing all that well. I tell myself I'm still adjusting to the move and to a new education system and try not to let my confidence suffer ;)

    Violet: Over here they are funded by the local authority using council taxes plus their other sources of funding that come from central government. The problem is that the government cut the money it gives to local authorities by something like 20%, so keeping libraries running is becoming increasingly difficult. Libraries do charge for some services like DVD lending, but from what I hear it doesn't make them much money.

    litlove: Yes, I see that a lot too with children, and it always makes me so happy. I can't imagine anything replacing that experience if it disappears.

    Kristi: I'm in Manchester, and fortunately the library system here is excellent. I live close to two branches and they're both well stocked. So sorry to hear about your local library being moved to somewhere so small :(

    Amy: Yes, the due dates can be a problem if you travel a lot! But I hope you discover a real gem when you visit it next.

    Kate: I actually notice variation in charity shop prices even within the city. In a well-off neighbourhood they're easily £3, which is also the standard Oxfam price. Go somewhere a bit less fashionable and they're much, much cheaper. But of course that no one has the time or availability to hunt around for the best bargains, not to mention the severe limitations in what you can find at all.

    Loni: Yes, I definitely think these arguments apply universally. Thanks for linking to me!

    Bina: Yes, they are free here, financed by the city council. But then again, we do pay council tax, which isn't as cheap as all that. (Students are actually exempt, but because my boyfriend is not a student and I live with him, my household still has to pay.) VERY good point about libraries also having the potential to be intimidating if you don't come from a certain background. But at least they address that, and librarians make a real effort to cross that barriers. For understandable enough reasons, the book industry's priorities are different.

    Jodie: That's so interesting about the stigma attached to shopping at charity shops! Having only been here a few months, I hadn't picked up on that at all. That stigma definitely exists in Portugal, and it's bad enough that you just don't see used bookshops or charity shops at all. Most people would flat out refuse to buy anything second hand (well, except cars). I had wondered if this was a cultural difference, but it's interesting to know it also happens here to some extent. (Also, rant away!)

    Sakura: Also a great point about them simply being wonderful places to be!

  45. You know, come to think of it, I'm not sure how well known it is in the US either. I certainly didn't know until we moved into this particular neighborhood in San Antonio where the library was only 1.5 miles away. And when I went to ALA two years ago there were a bunch of people sharing the van from the airport together and the non-librarians in the van had no idea that libraries still functioned outside universities.

  46. Another argument to add to your list is that libraries might have books out of print. I was looking for a second-hand one book on the internet, the cheapest I could find was €160.

  47. Well, you have set off quite a debate, Ana! It would be interesting to have the point of view of one of those people who recommended more user fees, or less libraries open, to see why they think libraries aren't popular or used. Which point of view I can't give since I am a firm believer in libraries! I was just thinking that when I did my post on the books I had out from the library last week, some of my posters from England said they had to pay a surcharge just to place a hold on a book. I was shocked. What will happen when lower-income people who do rely on the library for their knowledge and pleasure, have to pay for the privilege of requesting a book? Why do we think it's ok to charge to request a book? When did politicians and city councils decide this?

    It bothers me that we have to defend the right to literacy, the right to read, that the only place that people can learn to read for free, is no longer 'free'. It bothers me that our civilization holds knowledge in such shortsightedness that it risks the next few generations growing up with less - and thus setting up discontent and revolution. I know that's an exaggeration! I think you know what I mean. If the health of our society is shown by how we take care of the old, the young, the sick, then it's also shown by how we take care of the disadvantaged. And I firmly believe that libraries are a source of wisdom that is availabe to everyone, regardless of wealth, and so should be held in higher regard than our city councils look at them as.

    And that's not even counting everyone like you and me who can afford books, but who also choose to support our libraries by using them. It would be much sadder if no one used the libraries any more. So I wonder, what is going on in England, and Canada and the US, and everywhere else where libraries are threatened?

    I think you have added a good post here to the subject of libraries and why they are necessary, Ana. And I didn't even get started on second-hand book stores! lol

  48. Amanda: By the sound of it libraries could do with more publicity both here and there. Of course, with such limited budgets I imagine that it's hard to find a way around that :\

    Em: Yes!

    Susan: You know, from what I hear rates of usage have little to do with deciding which libraries are going to be closed. People do use them quite a lot. Here in Manchester they have just announced 5 closures, and those branches were picked because they were within 1 mile of another branch. Which certainly doesn't sound unreasonable as far as criteria go, but one mile can be daunting for an elderly person with limited mobility, for example. And with mobile services also being cut, I don't know what's going to happen to those users :\ I shouldn't be complaining, though, as we're not charged anything at all for reserving a book or requesting from another branch, and the system is overall excellent.

  49. I adore this post and the eloquence it's inspired in your commenters. Where I live we recently voted on renewing a regular levy (money the taxpayers had been paying before, not an increase) that would restore our local library's cut evening and weekend hours, so important for working patrons. Basically, they had cut librarians' working hours in order to funnel the money that was going into their paychecks into maintaining the rest of patron services. A horrible compromise, and everyone complained heartily about the new hours being "inconvenient" and the levy got a huge amount of press and volunteer support--and then only squeaked by at something like 1/4 of a percent at the polls! At least it did squeak by. There's this disconnect, between wanting your library to be there for you once a month when you want a book, and being willing to stand by it. The more people know about what their libraries can do for their communities the better!

  50. Excellent post! I appreciate your ideas about middle-class comfort with books and knowledge of how to find them, as well as the confidence that culture is something they have a right to. I encounter a lot of students for whom that is not the case, and they most definitely can benefit from libraries.

  51. Thanks so much for pointing out the children's books issue. I check out more than 30 picture books for my son each week. He loves to read and he loves that the library books shelf is at his level, right in the family room. That is, I think, a key part of his intellectual development, and none of it would be quite so possible without a public library to frequent (as I could never sustain BUYING that many picture books!). The library makes that type of opportunity available for people at other socioeconomic levels as well. Even if one could not afford ANY picture books, their child could have a books shelf of their own thanks to a library card.

    And I do have to point out that for me, a real estate tax payer, the library is NOT free. I pay about $400 a year in property taxes that go directly to the library. To me, that is a small price to pay for the services it provides, but it is nonetheless not "free." If, as a property holder, I'm also subsidizing those that do NOT pay property tax, I'm okay with that too, for the library makes the community a better place in uncountable ways.

  52. I wrote about the library a few weeks ago (honestly can't remember if you commented or not) and it seems people were pretty evenly divided between using the library and not. Even though I do not use the library--other than for audiobooks, which is quite frequently lately--I do believe that they are an important part of our society. I try to do my part by donating my used books to the library and then buying more (ha! yes, buying more) at the awesome library sales we have.

    Though, once I have children who are interested in reading--so in a year or two--I'll be frequenting the library quite often for picture books and then first readers and the hopefully chapter books. I have fond memories of doing same as a child.

  53. My library is quite the opposite for me -- not a place I really go to branch out because they lean heavily toward popular fiction and I tend to like more obscure titles. I started collecting books because my library is so awful! But, you're right that libraries are absolutely not just about the books.

    Aren't the bookstores in the UK wonderful? I had trouble keeping myself from loading my suitcase when we were in London in August. I found a lovely off-price bookstore that I would have happily stayed in all day and it was about the size of a closet but packed with treasures!!!

  54. Oh, my gosh, I love this post. Love, love, love it.

  55. When I was a young reader, going to the library was about so much more than books and reading. It was about going to a place that embraced a culture that I loved. My family valued books, but many others didn't, and the library validated those feelings for me. The librarian made me feel important and valued and intelligent. I've never been to a bookstore that had quite the same feeling.

  56. Wonderful post, Ana! I used to read books only from libraries, once upon a time, but in recent years I buy books most of the time and read less from the library. I don't agree that books are cheap - I spend a fortune on books. As in your country, there are not many used bookstores in my place, and most of them don't have what I want. I still go to the library sometime and discover a difficult to get book there, which is not easily available. I would love libraries to stock all graphic novels - they are so expensive! Those people who are questioning the worth of libraries, don't know what they have. They should realize that when we have a diamond in hand we won't realize its worth, but when we lose it, we will always be thinking about it. (This is such a cliche, but I couldn't resist mentioning this).

    Thanks for this wonderful post :)

  57. Trapunto: The same has happened here - opening hours cut, and all branches closed Friday-Sunday, which quite surprised me. Surely those are the days when working patrons, children, etc. would need it to be open the most? I see your point about the disconnect, though. I think a lot of people want to know the library is there but don't necessarily do much to support it.

    Dorothy W: I came across a report the other day about Harper Collins commissioning some research in this area, with the goal of expanding their market. It was nice to see a publisher taking an interest, but I can't imaging those barriers ever truly disappear without libraries.

    Rebecca, good point about them not being really free, or not free for everyone. I help finance mine as well through council taxes.

    Trish: It really made me smile to think of you and your girl going into a library in about a year or so :D

    Bookfool: Sorry to hear yours isn't very good! And yes, bookstores here are wonderful, if very very dangerous :P

    Emily: Aw, thank you!

    Kathy: You said it perfectly!

    Vishy: To be fair on the "books are cheap" people, they meant the UK in specific - but even then, it's not universally true, as the price of used books varies a lot from town to town or even neighbourhood to neighbourhood. But if we consider the world at large, then yes, the point is even more absurd! I'm with you on GNs in particular. Libraries here do have them, but the selection is still limited, and they're so expensive to buy.

  58. Well said, Ana. While I think some books may be cheap in *my* view, they are not cheap for =everyone=, and libraries are a hugely important bridge for a widening education gap.

  59. Amen! I especially liked you comment about libraries as a way for people to get out of their comfort zone. I immediately started building a whole communications campaign in my head with that as the basic message :)

    I would love to work in the communications department of our Biblioteca Nacional. There’s so much more that they can do!

  60. I can't imagine my life without my library. It really is a magical place to me. I can explore so many different ideas and research any subject I've a mind too. I can't do that in a bookstore! I always tell my son that we will be civilized as long as we have libraries. They are the place where everyone regardless of race,gender, or socioeconomic class can get books (at least in US). Long live libraries!!!

  61. Excellent post Ana, very heartfelt. I too have found that I am more daring about the types of books I read when I can borrow them from the library rather than buying. I have a pretty good job, so went through a phase of buying every book I wanted, so I neglected my local library for a good long while. I have more financial commitments now, so am struggling a little and relying on my library so much more. Any book that I may not read more than once, and audiobooks etc - I get them all from my library. And I love the feeling the place gives me. The staff are welcoming and knowledgeable, and I've been inspired there to read all kinds of things I wouldnt normally pick up. My city library is quite modern and large, hosting all kinds of reading groups, childrens events and author readings, and I dont imagine will be under threat. But sadly the same is not true of some of the smaller libraries in the area. I can only hope that the public can make their voices heard.

  62. My childhood would have been so sad with my beloved library! I don't belong to one now, but if I lived close to an English-language one I would... I'm always envious of all the bloggers who can just got the latest books from the library! Secondhand bookstores are certainly not a substitute, everyone should have the chance to read what they choose, not what someone else chose to sell!

  63. Very well-said! I especially like your point about libraries breaking down barriers for people with reading. Very true that even fifty cents is a commitment.

    For myself, I read very quickly, and I know I couldn't afford to buy all the books I read! Nor do I have shelf-space for them, or a desire to keep most of them. The library's the perfect option for me, to get books free and then give them back when I'm done, instead of filling up my apartment with books (I mean...more than it is anyway!)

  64. The libraries where I live are all lacking and I'm better off buying my own. But having said that, books here are expensive and I also believe that's part of the reason why reading is still something that's not very popular with the folks where I live.


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