Thoughts on cold storage

by Jamie Johnston

A government consultation prompts questions about public libraries.
Empower, inform, enrich is a consultation document published on 1 December 2009 by UK minister for culture Margaret Hodge. It's a rather odd consultation document in that it doesn't seek to consult people about any specific proposals; rather, it contains twenty-nine short 'essays' by various interested parties followed by twenty-three more or less open questions. The essays and the questions cover all sorts of topics including governance, buildings, opening hours, partnerships with private companies, digital resources, and funding. This isn't a response to the consultation, nor do I really feel well enough informed to make one, but a few of the points raised in the document, and a few of the ideas the government seems to be playing with (or at least being asked by the essayists to play with), concern me enough that I'd like to talk to you about them.

The bit where I ask you to consider what public libraries are for

If you put together the bolder ideas put forward in the various essays you find yourself imagining an institution very unlike a traditional public library. It may have a crêche or a coffee shop in it, or it may be inside a leisure centre, or it may have no physical location at all but be an online database from which one can request items and have them delivered by post. It may offer e-books, digital music and films, and even advice about other public services or how to start one's own business. It may be bustling and noisy and stimulating, a place to meet people and discuss things. It may even sell books.

The trigger for all this seems to be that the number of people visiting libraries and the number of books being borrowed have been dropping rapidly. I have to say that for me, a frequent and reasonably contented user of public libraries and a believer in a bottom-up evolutionary sort of progress, this didn't immediately seem a desperately compelling reason to completely up-end the library system: if people don't want to use libraries, why not respect their preferences and leave those who do still use them to carry on using them? There may be every reason to encourage more people to use the service as it is, but if one starts making major and fundamental changes to any public service in order to get more people to use it then every public service will turn into McDonalds. But Mrs Hodge's essay makes the point that '[i]f we don't [increase membership], libraries could become an easy target for cuts when local authorities are faced with stringent financial constraints' (1); and indeed, according to the introduction, despite an actual increase in funding in the last decade, 'book stock is down 20 per cent' (2). It also appears that, possibly because of neglect by local authorities, many public libraries are making no bottom-up evolutionary progress at all in response to the various new digital methods of accessing information that surely closely concern the basic purpose of the library system.

Well, that's the key, isn't it? 'The basic purpose of the library system'... is what exactly? That's what we need to know in order to tell which of the many innovations suggested in this consultation document would make public libraries into better public libraries and which would make them into things that aren't public libraries at all. A couple of the essayists - Richard Charkin of the publisher Bloomsbury and Jonathan Drori late of BBC Online - recognize the importance of identifying the purpose of the service before making decisions about what it should do. A larger number make suggestions about what that purpose is or should be. Mr Charkin encourages Mrs Hodge to say that 'libraries are about making available what authors (of all kinds) have written both recently and in the past' (3); Mr Drori urges, somewhat vaguely, that '[t]here should be a clear nationwide promise to provide a basic suite of services such as book borrowing, access to newspapers and magazines, free wi-fi and the provision of skilled and empathetic librarians' (4); in the view of Kathy Kirk, interim head of culture and community services at Worcestershire county council, '[l]ibraries should... be menu driven services flexibly responding to local need to encourage independence' (5), whatever that means; Miranda McKearney, chief executive of the Reading Agency, says, 'Libraries were set up to create a nation of learners and readers by giving everyone free access to the world's knowledge' (6); they 'reach into every neighbourhood and every family, giving free access for everyone to all of the world's knowledge whether of the intellect or of the imagination, whether in print or online, all mediated by skilled and helpful library staff', says Bob McKee, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (7); Hampshire's library service, says the county council's chief executive Andrew Smith, is 'a creative service at the heart of Hampshire communities which prides itself on meeting their evolving needs for reading, information, learning and enjoyment' (8); Chris White of Hertfordshire county council imagines 'a service whose principal function is... the provision of empowering information' (9); and Fiona Williams, president of the Society of Chief Librarians, regards '[t]he core purpose of public libraries' as 'providing knowledge and information' (10). Does any of those formulae accurately describe the purpose of a system of public libraries?

The bit where I try and fail to work out what public libraries are for

Now there's a risk of faulty reasoning here: if I observe, for example, that many of the definitions above would just as well describe bookshops, and if I go on to say on that basis that those definitions must be incomplete, I'm assuming á priórí that selling books is not part of the basic purpose of public libraries, which is just what several essayists in Empower, inform, enrich seem to dispute. But I subscribe to Aristotle's belief that when you're defining a term you have to keep at least one eye on what ordinarily people ordinarily mean by it, and when it comes to public libraries that surely means a service that's free at the point of use (11). So definitions that refer to 'making available' or 'providing' are incomplete unless they also specify 'for free'. One might also instinctively say that any ordinary definition of a public library must include a reference to books, but is that right? For as long as they've existed, public libraries have stocked newspapers and periodicals as well as books; and an institution that provided free access to newspapers and periodicals but not to books would surely still be a library, albeit an eccentric one. That already takes us to a broader category, but where are its limits? It must be broader than 'printed matter' because one would hardly exclude a text from a library's stock just for being hand-written (12). Even 'words on paper' is too narrow to embrace, for example, the microfiche versions of old newspapers that have long been available at many libraries; but can we go as far as to include, as a matter of course, relatively recent additions to library stocks like CDs, DVDs, and computer games, not to mention frontier formats like e-books, as part of what several essayists call the 'core offer' of public libraries? Richard Charkin moves a little away from merely listing formats when he talks about 'what authors... have written', which seems closer to the mark; but what do we understand by 'author' and indeed 'write'? Are computer games written by authors? Arguably they are, at least as much songs or films are written (in that part of the process that creates the audience's final experience involves one or more people creating a fairly detailed description, in some form of notation such as printed words or musical notes, of how to bring the experience itself into being) by authors (that is, individuals, or at most small groups of close collaborators, who conceive the experience and are fundamentally responsible for causing it to occur in the way it does and not some very different way). When I think about the sorts of things I and others would and wouldn't expect to find in a library, it does seem to me that Mr Charkin is about right in defining the category as 'what authors have written', if that's construed in the broad way I've just suggested. DVDs, CDs, even computer games are not only nowadays to be found in libraries but seem somehow reasonable things to find there, yet one would never suggest that a library should have a stock of paintings or sculptures, which are comparable in many ways but are in no meaningful sense 'written'. But why does this distinction seem to make sense? Is the process by which something is made any more sensible as the overriding criterion for its inclusion in a library than its format?

Some contributors try to get around these problems by saying that libraries should be repositories not of particular types of object such as books and CDs but of a certain type of content, namely which they call 'information' and 'knowledge'. But what about fiction (including poetry)? This type of written text must surely make up a substantial majority of public libraries' daily business but can hardly be called 'knowledge' or 'information' (and even Bob McKee's phrase 'knowledge... of the imagination' is an intolerable stretch). Indeed many of these essays talk about libraries as if entertainment were only a subsidiary part of their purpose, or even an unintended side-effect: as if, in fact, the purpose of giving people access to books were to 'promote literacy', rather than the promotion of literacy being a means to help people read and enjoy books. (And it's interesting, isn't it, that in the title of the consultation document we have 'empower', 'inform', and 'enrich', but 'entertain' is nowhere to be seen even though it fits the assonance perfectly.) Perhaps the reason for this side-lining of entertainment as a goal for libraries comes from the fact that entertainment doesn't fall entirely within any comfortable definition of a library's purpose, whereas information pretty much does. Very few people, I think, would have any but minor quibbles with the suggestion that any information - that is, any statement or summary or report of human knowledge - in any format could quite properly be housed in a library. There are even libraries that have 'human stock': people who make themselves available to be questioned about their experiences and their knowledge by users of the library. That's a bit of a stretch, but it still fits into some sort of basic idea we have of libraries as places where one can learn things by taking in information, and strongly suggests that we regard anything that conveys information, from books to documentary films to live people, as a legitimate thing for a library to provide. But you can't do that with entertainment because of the much larger range of things that can entertain us: even if we exclude things like rainbows and good food by narrowing it to 'artificially contrived entertainments with no practical purpose' we still have to explain why books and films are perfectly sensible things to have in a library but sculptures, playing-cards, and toboggans plainly aren't. Expense aside, why should a library have books full of photographs of sculptures but no actual sculptures? Why should it stock play-scripts but not produce plays?

That last question suggests another apparent inconsistency: if libraries plainly shouldn't be expected to produce plays, why does it seem reasonable for them to provide, as many do, facilities for listening to CDs or even watching DVDs? Libraries, of course, have long been places not only for borrowing books but also for reading books; indeed non-lending libraries historically preceded lending libraries. Some of the essayists in Empower, inform, enrich do, it's true, imagine a public library system that consists at least partly of an online-ordering-and-postal-delivery sort of service with no physical premises at all, and David Nicholas in particular seems to think the library as a physical location is already dead and just hasn't realized it yet (13); and it is perhaps true that a service that merely provided access to books, CDs, and other materials without providing any facilities at all for consuming them would still be recognizable as a library. But even if providing facilities for listening to CDs and watching DVDs isn't part of the essence of a library, it's still evidently a reasonable thing for a library to do, whereas putting on plays or concerts isn't. We can home in on the distinction by observing that some libraries do have booths for people to listen to and watch audio-visual material, but a library with an auditorium for screening films in it would, I'm sure, be regarded as a library with a cinema attached, not just a library with impressive but inherently libraryish facilities. One difference is that watching a film on the big screen, or attending a play or a concert, is a collective activity, whereas the sort of experience we accept as suitable for a library to provide - sitting in a booth and watching a DVD or listening to a CD - is a solitary one. Even looking at a sculpture or a painting is something one does in a gallery with other people also doing the same, whereas looking at a book of photographs of sculptures and paintings is generally something one does alone. Or perhaps public / private is a better distinction than collective / solitary, because a room full of people can listen to a CD or watch something on a TV screen, yet it's still a different type of activity from attending a concert or watching a film in the cinema. Yet I'm not convinced by this distinction, however it's worded. Another possibility is that it's matter of the original and unique as against the mass-produced and repeatable: books and audio-visual recordings and photographs are all capable of being replicated identically, whereas a live performance or an original work of fine art is unique. But a film on the big screen is also identical every time it's shown, so why should it be in the same camp as concerts and paintings?

Could it really be that there is no coherent principle underlying what we accept as a proper thing for a library to provide and what we don't? Is our conception of a library nothing more than the result of contingent historical development? When libraries first arose they were simply and exclusively for books. They provided both information and entertainment so long as that information and entertainment came in the form of words on paper. Later, guided by nothing more than analogy and practicality, they embraced some formats (like microfiche, CD, DVD) but not others (like live performance). We find the idea of sculptures in libraries incongruous for no better reason than that sculptures have for centuries been presented in a different, equally historically contingent way, namely in art galleries; but we accept CD listening-booths in libraries because when libraries starting providing them there was no other established way to listen to audio recordings outside one's own home. Is that it? If so, perhaps it explains why we have trouble working out whether, and how, the provision of new things like e-books and internet access should be part of a library's business: we can't unconsciously apply the basic principle of what should and shouldn't be in a library because there isn't one. Public libraries have no single essential purpose, and the best we can do to define a public library is to describe what a typical example has tended to be up to now. If that's so, there may be little hope of reaching a consensus about what libraries should or shouldn't do in the future, or even of justifying one's own opinion on the subject by reference to any kind of objective or accepted axioms. I don't really want to believe that, but nor can I come up with anything better. The closest, in fact, I can think of to a satisfactory definition is Viscount Samuel's remark, 'A library is thought in cold storage', which feels right both because 'thought' seems broad enough to embrace both non-fiction and fiction and because 'cold storage' hints at some perceptible and perhaps even sensible distinction between formats like books and audio-visual recordings on the one hand and live performances on the other hand (even if it doesn't help us identify where exactly the distinction falls and why I feel that a DVD of The life of Brian should be on one side but a screening of it should be on the other). It even has that implication of a warehouse or repository, a place where things are kept both safe and ready for retrieval. But, however suggestive, it's too nebulous to base any systematic thinking on.

The bit where I say all the other bits and bobs I wanted to say

Anyway, now that I've entirely failed to find any logical criteria by which to decide which of the many ideas in Empower, inform, enrich are good ones and which are bad, let me tell you about some of them and what I personally, with reference to no identifiable underlying principles, make of them.

One suggestion put forward, or at least mentioned, by quite a few of the essayists is universal (or national) membership. This seems to have different forms in the minds of different contributors, and in some of its forms it gets mixed up with vexed questions of the structure of public libraries' governance, especially whether there should be greater national coordination. I don't know enough about all that to have a view, but as a fairly frequent user of public libraries I can say that I very much like the idea in its most basic form: making every British citizen a member of every British library, so that one could go into, use, and borrow from any public library in any part of the country rather than having to register separately with each library or group of libraries. I live in the London borough of Wandsworth and I'm a member of Wandsworth's library service, which has eleven branches spread across an area of 34 square kilometres (13 square miles). My nearest branch - Roehampton library - is just two minutes' walk away, but it's rubbish; a short bus-ride away is a very good one - Putney - that I use often. If I can't find something at Putney, though, my next easiest option is not to go to one of the other nine Wandsworth libraries but to hop on a bus to Wimbledon or Richmond, both different boroughs with different library services, or indeed to visit a library in central London while I'm there for other reasons, as I frequently am. So being able to use any public library in any part of the country (or even just any part of London) without having to go through the signing-up process afresh every time would be spiffing.

This is in fact already happening, sort of. For a while many London library services have had bilateral agreements with one another, though others staunchly refused to let anyone join who wasn't a resident of the borough; in the autumn of 2009 a universal membership scheme was introduced that requires all UK libraries to accept as a member anyone with a valid membership card for any one UK public library. Some participating libraries, however, don't allow non-residents access to the full range of library services afforded to resident members; and in many cases one still has to go through a fresh registration process with every new library one uses. Some contributors to Empower, inform, enrich take the idea further. Margaret Hodge herself talks about allowing anyone who borrows a book from any given library to return it to any other library in the country (14); Bob McKee makes the obvious suggestion of creating a single nationally-valid membership card (15); Tracy Chevalier combines that same suggestion with the idea of a national database to allow anyone anywhere in the country to request a book to be sent to any branch (or, for a charge to cover the cost, to be posted directly to the reader) (16); Michael Thorne proposes something similar, adding that libraries should make greater use of electronic self-service facilities (17). These are all attractive ideas, and might well encourage more people to use libraries. Personally I like to browse, and even when I know exactly what I want I for some reason always prefer to go to the library or bookshop, get it off the shelf with my own hands, and take it away with me; but since I started thinking about this topic several people have said to me that they are put off using public libraries either because they've found that their local library doesn't have the books they want or because they can't be bothered to physically go to the library when they can buy online, and a library service offering online ordering from a database big enough to virtually guarantee the availability of any given book (as a national collection surely would be) would solve both those problems. In fact it would, by rights, be a very serious competitor to Amazon in the same way that local libraries used to be serious competitors to high-street bookshops in the mid-1960s to mid-1970s.

Speaking of Amazon, one idea in this document that I think is utterly awesome is for the public library system to provide a really good recommendation engine (18). Some people have said to me that they've been dicouraged from using libraries when they found that library staff were either unwilling or unable to give them good advice on what they might like to read. Of course in an ideal world every library would be staffed by an amazing team of book-lovers who between them know every good book in the world and can make fairly accurate assessments of which ones you might enjoy after talking to you for ninety seconds, but let's be realistic. Not even in the best staffed and best funded bookshop could someone with the most mainstream tastes be confident of getting an accurate recommendation more than, what, two thirds of the time? And if you're looking for something a bit more 'niche', like, say, almost anything that's ever received a positive review on Ferretbrain, your chances are very low unless you go to a specialist bookshop (and we can't expect public libraries to compete with specialist bookshops in the expertise of their staff). So what better solution than a recommendation engine?

Of course all this is taking us very much into the realm of libraries and online resources. Another strand of thinking in Empower, inform, enrich is about the public library as a physical environment. An awful lot of the essayists assert without argument and without apparent fear of contradiction that libraries are (or should be, or used to be) community centres and places to meet people and do stuff, which I must say rather puzzled me. Maybe I've spent too much time in academic libraries, but I generally think of libraries as fairly quiet places where one pursues solitary activities like, um, reading. Some of the 'community centre' talk seems to be part of the tendency of many of these people to want use public libraries to advance every social policy agenda they can think of: Dame Lynne Brindley wants them to help people start their own businesses (19); Roy Clare talks more vaguely about giving 'personalised advice' (20); Jonathan Drori exuberantly offers 'book clubs or professional networking or story groups for toddlers' (21); Tony Durcan sees libraries taking on the mantle of 'free and safe' community spaces as post offices and pubs disappear (22); the largely incomprehensible Kathy Kirk says that '[l]ibraries are integral to the delivery of the personalisation agenda' (23); Miranda McKearney wants them to 'make a serious contribution to tackling [poor literacy, youth crime] and other problems' (24); for Martin Molloy '[t]hey are a hub for community activity, a focus for engagement through consultation, advice surgeries and information events, a place where families can learn and grow' (25); and Michael Thorne left me frankly aghast with this: 'Same public libraries have NHS health information desks with staff from the NHS operating them and collection of materials promoting healtheir lifestyles. Some public libraries help you set up your own business. Many will help you with housing and planning issues. In my vision there is no government department without a presence in public libraries' (26). Look, Professor Thorne, if there's one sure way to stop me ever going to a public library again it's to let twenty-five government departments set up help-desks there.

But actually not all this 'community' talk comes from that sort of thinking. The Conservative party criticized the consultation document as being an advertisement for Starbucks (27) because one of the essayists is Darcy Willson-Rymer, Starbucks UK's managing director; but actually, to my surprise, his contribution is quite interesting. 'In the UK,' he says, 'a lot of kids are leaving libraries and heading to coffee shops. In the US, many libraries at universities have noticed the trend and have put Starbucks coffee shops into the library... Everyone needs... something we call the "third place". It's neither home nor work, but a comfortable spot where you are welcome to stay as long as you like. Libraries need to be a "third place" of choice rather than a last resort for increasingly isolated or marginalised groups.' (28.) It's a good point. When I was a student I never worked in the library when I could avoid it: I took the books out of the library and worked in my room or, frequently, in the student common room. I like to feel that life is going on around me while I work. I may be unusual in that, but Mr Willson-Rymer is dead right when he says that coffee-shops often have several people in them who are reading or using lap-tops, isn't he? And the more I think about it the more examples I think of from my own experience (including, in fact, one from the Starbucks near Gray's Inn, where my classmates and I had revision sessions for our Bar exams). In particular I'm now remembering the arrival of Borders in Oxford in, what was it, 2001? What a thing that was: for actual stock not nearly as good as Blackwell's, let alone the Bodleian library, but here suddenly was a place that combined the virtues of a college library (full of books you could read without buying them and it stayed open until nearly midnight) and a coffee shop (you could talk, sit down in comfortable chairs, and indeed get coffee). Now Borders (in Britain) has gone the way of the ichthyosaur and the Tenth Doctor, but how about combining similar virtues (not necesseraily including the actual selling of coffee, though there'd be no harm in that) in a non-silent, sociable section of a public library?

Similar virtues except, that is, for the sale of books. The idea that libraries should sell books - an idea floated by Margaret Hodge and Miranda McKearney in particular (29) - just baffles me. Why? I mean... why? People who want to buy books go to bookshops (or indeed supermarkets) or buy them online. People who go to libraries want free access to books. Is there any significant number of people who walk down the street knowing that they want to read this or that book but unable to decide whether to buy it or borrow it? I doubt it, and even if there were then a combined library-bookshop would only help them delay the moment of decision until they arrived at the counter. Now, I can imagine that it might sometimes happen that you borrow a book from a library and then, while or after reading it, decide that it would be nice to own a copy. In such a case it would, I suppose, be convenient to be able to pay the library for permission to simply keep that copy rather than having to return it, but then you'd have bought a used copy, complete with bar-code, clear plastic sleeve, Dewey decimal sticker on the spine, and glued-in slip of paper covered in date-stamps. Which means the library would have to charge you less than the recommended retail price for it, and would also have to buy a new copy for lending and spend time sticking all those things onto it. Or else you'd have to return the lending copy and be given a new copy, in which case wouldn't it have been just as convenient to buy a new copy from a bookshop? And would the cost of the infrastructure all this would require really be vindicated by the surely relatively small number of people who would make use of it? Pretty much the same advantage could be gained for much less cost and hassle if the library simply made an arrangement with one or more bookshops (perhaps in exchange for a fee paid by the bookshop to the library) so that if you decide you want to buy a copy of the book you've borrowed you could press a button on the online catalogue or tell the librarian at the desk when you return the book and a new copy would be posted to you by the bookshop? In any case this clearly isn't what Mrs Hodge and Ms McKearney have in mind: they want displays of new books in library buildings so that you can pick one up, take it to the counter, pay, and take it away. I just can't fathom what benefit they think this would bring to anyone at all.

Not only does it appear an entirely pointless idea, it may also be a pernicious one. Tim Godfray points out (30) that it would be entirely unfair for a publicly funded, government-run, non-profit operation such as a public library to set itself up in competition with commercial booksellers (31). And also relevant here is an observation made by John Newbigin of Culture 24 (32) that libraries have for decades (if not centuries) been using a business model in which the consumer buys (by subscription in the case of private libraries or indirectly through taxation in the case of public libraries) not permanent onwership of an item but the right to use it for a limited period or in limited circumstances, which is the very model that the music industry (e.g. Spotify), the film and television industries (e.g. Lovefilm and the BBC iplayer) have just begun to turn to in order to reduce piracy and harness the power of digital online media. If you pretty much invented a business model and have miles more experience and brand recognition in it than anyone else, and suddenly you find that lots of whipper-snappers are trying to join in, do you seriously choose this moment to start experimenting with entirely different models that you know nothing about and that other people have already got sewn up? Really?

In fact it isn't only music and film that are experimenting with the lending model. Let's think about e-books. E-books are universally marketed as if they were products to buy and to permanently and absolutely own, just like paper books. This may be partly inadvertent, because the people who publish and market them are the same people who have always been in the business of selling paper books and that's just how they think. I suspect it's also because customers aren't likely to pay paper-book prices for e-books if they realize that their rights over the thing they're buying are much more limited than if they were buying a paper book. But, given that you generally can't lend, give, or re-sell your e-book to anyone else, and that the publisher can actually change or take away your e-book without consulting (or even, in some cases, refunding) you (33, 34), it's basically a lending model, even if the term of the loan is ostensibly indefinite. People are becoming increasingly aware of the differences between e-books and paper books as a result of things like Amazon summarily deleting people's copies of books by George Orwell (35), and many are grumbling about the prices of e-books, but publishers staunchly refuse to reduce prices significantly because they fear undermining the sales of their own paper editions. Meanwhile Google is steadily digitizing every book ever, for profit, and causing no end of resentment among writers and publishers in the process (36, 37). Where are public libraries in all this? Nowhere much, but they are perhaps ideally placed to harness digital formats without alienating or upsetting readers, writers, or publishers. They could offer their members free digital loans, allowing the reader to download an e-book that will be remotely deleted after the normal lending period: no library-user would quibble with that because we all know that library books are only borrowed for short periods and, unlike Amazon, the library wouldn't be charging as though it were a permanent sale; and, unlike Google, they shouldn't have too much trouble negotiating a system for paying authors and publishers for the rights to do this because such a system could presumably be quite straightforwardly extrapolated from the current scheme by which authors and publishers are paid for the right to loan paper books (38). Fiona Williams in her contribution to Empower, inform, enrich says the public library system should be taking a lead in digitizing content and giving people access to it (39), and it's hard to think of any organization better placed to do it.

A couple of contributors make the related suggestion that libraries should make more use of JANET, a government-funded academic network that provides access to many online academic resources (40); another, Guy Garfit of the Largeprint Bookshop, points out that public libraries are the traditional first port of call for people who want large-print editions of books (41); and Michael Rosen urges that libraries do more to coordinate with and provide resources to schools (42). The shared point here is that public libraries, not being constrained by the need to turn a profit, can and should serve people the commercial sector tends to overlook. A friend of mine who's worked as a librarian pointed out to me that it's the young and the old who both use public libraries more than anyone else and also rely on them more than anyone else because they aren't as well served elsewhere. The same is, in a sense, true of geeks (in the broad sense of anyone who takes a keen and deep interest in something that is of at most superficial interest to the majority of the world's population): as Michael Thorne remarks with respect to science books, 'while the latest novel may well be available at Tesco's for a bargain price, science books are very expensive and increasing in price' (43) - one could in fact say the same of all academic books. Like the BBC's obligation to provide 'public service' programmes that might be too niche, obscure, or high-brow to be worth commercial broadcasters' time and money, public libaries have a task of catering to everyone, perhaps especially people who are outside the main stream. Which brings us back to where we started, with the question whether it's really necessary or indeed desirable to revamp the library system to try to get the absent majority using libraries again. The answer may be yes, in as much as libraries are more likely to thrive if lots of people use them and therefore support greater funding and higher political priority for them. On the other hand, it would be destructive of the whole purpose of the exercise (which, whatever precisely that may be in terms of new media and formats, is clearly a public service exercise) to try to get people through the doors of libraries by stocking lots of what the majority of people want and little of anything else, or indeed by doing bizarre and extraneous things like selling books or offering advice about business or accommodation.

The bit where I do a Columbo

This has gone on far longer than I intended, partly due to my possibly quixotic and certainly unsuccessful attempt to define the purpose of public libraries. Can you tell I don't work out what I'm going to say before I start writing? I leave that section there for you to read, though, so that you can see the direction I was headed in and tell me if you can think of anything I've missed. And in fact that was what I originally intended for this article as a whole: a fairly quick canter through the issues raised by the consultation and my thoughts about them, and then a sort of question-cum-challenge for all of you. So, just one more thing:

Public libraries, right? They're, like, full of free books. Free books! Books! For free! And music and films and computer games. And we all like those things, right? But I bet most of us here don't use public libraries much (44); certainly not as our main source of reading (or listening, viewing, playing) material. Am I right? And if so... why don't we?


1 · Empower, inform, enrich, page 8. The governance and funding of public libraries in the UK is mainly in the hands of local government.

2 · Page 5.

3 · Page 17.

4 · Page 22.

5 · Page 32.

6 · Page 34.

7 · Page 36.

8 · Page 58.

9 · Page 63.

10 · Page 64.

11 · In fact every private library I've ever encountered also has this element, the usual model being a subscription paid in advance.

12 · And indeed original manuscripts form an important part of the stock of a reference library like the British Library.

13 · Pages 44-45. It's impossible to tell whether he thinks this is a good thing or a bad things since he spends the whole essay denouncing everyone except himself for failing to see which way the wind is blowing and consequently never gets round to saying what, if anything, they would do if they were as clever as he is.

14 · Page 9.

15 · Page 38.

16 · Page 19. Roy Clare (page 20) also suggests a national database but gives no indication of what it should be used for. Neither he nor Ms Chevalier quite makes it clear whether such a database would simply contain the book-stock of every library in the country or whether there would be some kind of national book-stack; but perhaps this doesn't matter much. Gail Rebuck (page 50) says that some libraries are already experimenting locally with letting members order, receive, and return books by post.

17 · Page 61. Self-service using RFID technology is also mentioned by Bob McKee (page 37), and Andrew Smith (page 59) talks about using self-service to provide library services where traditional fully staffed static libraries aren't financially viable.

18 · Jonathan Drori on page 22.

19 · Page 13.

20 · Page 20. Or does he just mean personalized advice about what book to read?

21 · Page 23. To be fair to him I should concede that two of these do at least have something to do with reading.

22 · Page 25.

23 · Page 32.

24 · Page 34.

25 · Page 40. Frankly I'd have thought the main places for families to grow would be bedrooms and hospitals, but maybe I'm old-fashioned.

26 · Page 60.

27 · According to a Litopia podcast. I've tried to find the actual quotation but with no success. In fact despite much googling I've been totally unable to find any official Conservative response to or comment on the consultation. Good work there, whoever is in charge of Tory presence on the internet: even if I actually cared what your party thinks about public libraries, I wouldn't be able to find out.

28 · Pages 66 & 67.

29 · Pages 9 and 35 respectively.

30 · Page 29.

31 · It should also be observed that, unless you think libraries are specifically about books and not other formats or media, there seems no logical reason for them to sell books but not CDs and DVDs. Which would put libraries in unfair competition not only with commercial book-sellers, who could perhaps take it, but also with already severely embattled audio-visual retailers like HMV and Fopp (not to mention independent music and film shops). And indeed there would be no reason not to sell downloadable music and video, too, which takes us into the world of itunes and suchlike. Slippery slope much?

32 · Page 42. He doesn't raise this in relation to book-selling by libraries, which he in fact doesn't mention at all, but as an unrelated point.

38 · I know some writers and publishers aren't terribly happy with the current system of rights and payments for paper-book loans, but there's considerably less anger about this than about the Google hoo-hah, and indeed this might be a good opportunity to negotiate a new single scheme to cover both paper and digital loans from public libraries.

39 · Page 65.

40 · Roy Clare (page 20) and Michael Thorne (page 60).

41 · Page 26.

42 · Pages 54 & 55.

43 · Page 60.

44 · In 2004-2005 (the most recent statistics I could find) 37.4% of library users were retired, compared to 23.6% in full-time employment and only 5.4% full-time students; and only 23% were under 35.
Themes: Topical

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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 17:12 on 2010-01-18
The thing that jumps at me the most from this article is the 44 footnotes. That's *impressive*.


*reads properly*
Arthur B at 17:47 on 2010-01-18
but can we go as far as to include, as a matter of course, relatively recent additions to library stocks like CDs, DVDs, and computer games, not to mention frontier formats like e-books, as part of what several essayists call the 'core offer' of public libraries?

Personally, I consider the move by libraries to offering DVDs and computer games to be an enormous mistake. It places them in direct competition with commercial rental places like Blockbuster. That's not a fight they can really effectively get into, and to my mind if a library is being offered as a public service then it should be designed to allow for the borrowing of materials which aren't available for borrowing from other avenues.

(They also don't seem to fit your "free at the point of use" criteria, since every library I've seen that offers DVDs levies a charge for borrowing them.)

Then again, part of my annoyance is down to the fact that a great many libraries stocking DVDs seem to try to stock the newest and most popular films... in other words, precisely what film rental places stock. I could definitely see a place for a film lending library devoted not to the latest and sexiest, but to providing a broad and expansive selection of films from fairly recent ones to the beginning of cinema. But that would require far more space than most DVD sections in libraries provide.
Arthur B at 17:54 on 2010-01-18
Oh, and to answer your question: I don't use public libraries very much because I am an acquisitive beast at heart, and if I really enjoy a book I want to keep it. In the case of books which are by authors I've enjoyed in the past, and have had a sufficiently positive critical response that I'm quite confident I'll enjoy them, I'm happy to pay full price of them. In other circumstances, I tend to buy books second-hand, so it's not much of a financial risk to take a chance on something I don't know, whereas it would be a hassle to borrow a book from a library, read it, enjoy it, return it, and then go to a bookshop, find it again, and buy it again. Especially if the book is, in fact, long out of print, so isn't actually available in the bookshops any more. Far better if I just buy the thing straight off second-hand, since I can afford to, and if I don't enjoy it take it straight back to the second-hand store to pick up something else.
Dan H at 20:04 on 2010-01-18
Indeed many of these essays talk about libraries as if entertainment were only a subsidiary part of their purpose, or even an unintended side-effect: as if, in fact, the purpose of giving people access to books were to 'promote literacy', rather than the promotion of literacy being a means to help people read and enjoy books.

Unfortunately I think the ship's long since sailed on that one. "Literacy" has been an end in itself since long before any of us were born.

People often say "Twilight is a good thing, because it encourages teenagers to read". People seldom say "it is good for teenagers to read, so that they can enjoy Twilight."

In fact it's only now that I articulate it that I realize how rare that notion - that literacy is good because it promotes enjoyment of books, rather than enjoyment of books being good because it promotes literacy - is. It's fucking weird.
Sonia Mitchell at 20:30 on 2010-01-18
This was really interesting Jamie, thanks. I take the lazy option and say libraries should contain texts, 'text' being a broad enough word to cover films happily to me. But then, I've never before bothered to stop and consider how to define a public library. And I seriously thought you already could order a book in a library and they'd find it from any other library in the country. I guess it's just within county boundaries.

University libraries... I ended up using the Brookes library more and more as my degree progressed. While not massively extensive (though not bad), it had a lot of the things you mention, most notably social areas and comfy chairs.
Then again, university libraries are often specifically *not* public libraries. Perhaps that model only works when you can limit the number of people with access to the facilities. And spend per head is a lot more at universities.

I like the ebook idea a lot.
Dan H at 20:43 on 2010-01-18
I was going to go with the "texts" definition as well.
Shim at 22:32 on 2010-01-18
What, an article that I actually know something about? Hooray!

So, I'm an actual library assistant, and sometimes have to read things about policies and suchlike. I also used to work in a public library, and I've applied for various jobs in them at times. It's been a while, but here goes. This will be long, rambling and leap about whenever I think of another point to make. You might want to get a coffee and a buttie or something first...

So here's my first observation.
indeed, according to the introduction, despite an actual increase in funding in the last decade, 'book stock is down 20 per cent'
That fits in with what I know. It doesn't address some of the main causes for that. For one, libraries are encouraged or compelled to take on various new roles, including providing videos, DVDs and CDs as you mentioned, not to mention the ubiquitous computer facilities. Even small village libraries often have two or three computers nowadays. These take up a significant proportion of the space available. AV material is often displayed flat-face out (instead of spine-out as books usually are), or on carousels, both of which are less space-efficient. Computers themselves aren't huge, but a computer plus a desk plus network points take up a chunk of horizontal space, and usually stop you putting anything above or even very near them (because people don't want you reaching over them). So apart from anything else, libraries have been forced to dispose of books because they need to add other things but haven't had extra space provided.
For another, from what I knew a couple of years ago, there may have been an "actual increase in funding" (partly inflation-based, Mrs Hodge - where's my "real terms"?) but this funding is often tied to non-traditional resources, such as... well, providing DVDs, and AV-viewing facilities, and computers, and online catalogues, and reading groups, and meeting spaces, and weird outreach programmes. It's not just extra money. Staff, at least the lower end, have also got more expensive since the minimum wage, whereas libraries have traditionally had quite a lot of part-time, short-hours staff with low wages and benefits.

All the reading and research and surveys I had to wade through showed that the public overwhelmingly wanted libraries to provide books. They'll take the other stuff, sure, but books for free are the main thing they mentioned. Would they take more books above the internet provision and DVD-rental facilities? I can't say, but I reckon a lot of them might, especially the younger ones with their own easy access to those kinds of services. You know what else those surveys said? One of the main reasons why people didn't bother to use the library was that the didn't have the books they wanted. You stop stocking what they want, they won't come for the other stuff. Your veg shop might make fantastic coffees, but if people are coming for vegetables and you're always sold out, coffee won't be enough to keep them there.

You know what might "increase membership", Mrs Hodge? Maybe if you gave them the money to buy the books people actually want instead of faffing about with business seminars and wi-fi.

And breathe...
Shim at 22:39 on 2010-01-18
Okay, I have another massive comment or two ready, but it's giving me "there was an error, technical details below" only without the technical details. Grr.
Robinson L at 00:36 on 2010-01-19
Holy shit, Jamie! Your capacity for rhetoric continues to amaze me. I tip my hat to you, sir.

I'll get around to reading the whole thing ... one of these days. But skimming through I happened to stumble over this:

But I bet most of us here don't use public libraries much (44); certainly not as our main source of reading (or listening, viewing, playing) material. Am I right? And if so... why don't we?

Can't help you there. I never buy books except as an absolute last resort; ditto audiobooks. I haven't bought a DVD since Revenge of the Sith, I think. I'd go mad without public libraries. And my whole family is like that. Then again, I guess that survey only applies to the UK?

Arthur B: every library I've seen that offers DVDs levies a charge for borrowing them

That must be a cultural thing, because I've never seen a public library which did that. (For returning them late, yes, but not for borrowing them in the first place.)
Robinson L at 00:45 on 2010-01-19
Okay, I have another massive comment or two ready, but it's giving me "there was an error, technical details below" only without the technical details. Grr.

Hey, I'm getting that too, also with a fairly massive comment (on another article).
Rami at 04:52 on 2010-01-19
Both of you who are getting technical details errors -- would you mind emailing webmaster at ferretbrain with when / where you get the error and the content of the comment that's causing it? at 16:15 on 2010-01-19
Jamie, I will really need to read this article more thoroughly, but, on skimming it, there were a couple of things I wanted to say.

You see, I'm a librarian, and I take my job very seriously. I'd like to offer a general definition of libraries and what they do.

Libraries are places which preserve and disseminate information of all kinds to members of a given community.

Now, that's pretty general. For one thing, how does it differ from what museums do? I'd say there are two differences: Libraries have always focused on the written word, and they have always been for hands-on activity on the part of patrons. In other words, they've always focused on books (in one form or another) and been interactive.

When you look at the role of the library, you need to define "information", "availability" and "community". I am a teen librarian in a public library in the U.S., and our library exists primarily for the residents of our town. We offer them popular entertainment of all kinds, information of all kinds, and community-building activities (programming). These include classes offered by librarians, games, shows, classes and seminars offered by outside experts, movies ... well, you get the idea. But our focus is always jointly on information (whether entertaining or not) and community.

I think the public library is one of the greatest democratic institutions in the world. Anyone - even non-members - can come and use its resources on site. Anyone can ask any question they like (I remember interloaning a couple of copies of "The Anarchist's Bible" for curious teens, for example.) People can browse and learn or entertain themselves at their own pace, and it's all absolutely free. I love my job!

And one of the things I love best about it is reader's advisory. My sister (also a youth services librarian) and I have a reputation of excellence among some teens and parents, who look for us for their SF and fantasy loving kids. I just heard from one mom who had been doubtful about taking out Diane Duane's "Deep Wizardry". "It's about a girl," she said. I urged her to take it, anyway, and she told me her husband and son loved it, and had both read the entire series afterwards!

Of course, we don't always succeed this way. Some readers love books we don't, and vice versa. Some don't see the connections we try to make. But- again, it's about community. It's about human beings connecting through books. If someone comes to you repeatedly for reader's advisory, you get to know them and their tastes, and you build a relationship. No machine can ever replace that.

Just my two nickels!
Shim at 23:13 on 2010-01-19
Okay, here we go again...

Libraries are in many ways quite conservative (conservation being part of their purpose). The local membership is mostly just because we started on cardboard records and never really got around to changing how it worked. National memberships would also help libraries; mine used to have a blacklist of people who weren’t allowed to join, because they’d a history of joining other libraries and never returning their books (as in, stealing them). If they just had one record nationally, that’s way easier.

Oh, and a quick word about what you get in libraries. As you suggested, a lot of it is simply historical and pragmatic. However, I’d say another way of looking at is is, "stuff you can read/watch/listen to/play ('consume'), collect quite a lot of in one place, and practically lend". There’s no real way to lend out most sculptures. Works of art are too fragile – the media libraries lend out is replaceable (otherwise it’s reference only, like antiquarian books). On the other hand, some libraries do lend out toys, jigsaws, musical instruments, medical teaching aids (not public libraries, sadly) and so on.

Next, let’s think about virtual libraries. One of the great advantages of libraries is that anyone can use them. Most impressively, the poor, the barely-literate, the homeless... they can all go to a library and read, and possibly borrow, the books. You don’t need to be a member to come inside, at least in any public library I know of. You can use it as shelter, or a place to hang out and read and maybe meet a couple of old friends, without the pressure or cost of coffee shops and the like – I know there were some retired people who did exactly that in my old library. It’s also a good place to take small children, or for kids to hang around at weekends, which means they might borrow some books in passing even if that’s not really their thing. Of course, you can’t do that with a virtual library. The other problem is that those people (the poor, homeless etc.) are those most likely to be disadvantaged by a move to virtual libraries, because they don't have internet access, they don't have a fixed address to deliver books to, or whatever paperwork you need register for borrowing these days. Maybe they're too disorganised to collect or post books (people with some mental health problems, addictions, or otherwise "chaotic lives"), or can’t afford the fees – and who'd pay for those, exactly? The readers, or the under-funded library service? Remembering what a high proportion of library users are retired, what proportion of those would be comfortable browsing catalogues online to order books? My Nana, who is pretty sharp, still can't cope with the idea of scrollable, highlightable menus or context-dependent buttons on the TV and finds the on-screen TV-listings a nightmare. Young, highly-intelligent undergrads can still struggle with university library catalogues. Not forgetting those who physically find computer use very difficult. So dispensing with library buildings is likely to harm exactly those people who need libraries the most. The people who are likely to use an online library are, I'd suggest, the literate, well-heeled public with an interest in reading, a lot of their own books and stable lives. Not the hard-up, frequently-moving people who don't really go in for books.

Electronic self-service facilities sound good. They always sound good. "Empowering" and "self-service" get thrown around a lot. Usually, this translates into:
Step 1) Get new electronic self-service machine. Cut staff to pay for it. After all, we don’t need as many now.
Step 2) Significant proportion of readers don't like self-service machine, or can't get it to work. Some of the time it's broken. Some of them partly like libraries because you get some human contact – or rather, you used to. Some of them actually have problems or questions that would have cropped up if they talked to a human while they borrowed the book (or would have been spotted by decent staff), but the machine doesn't know that. As a result, various people are inconvenienced in some way.
Step 3) Remaining library staff spend a significant amount of their time training people to use the self-service machine, or repairing it, or reporting it as broken. Relationship with readers deteriorates due to reduced contact. Job becomes more boring, especially for people who signed up to avoid sitting at a computer all day and actually like other people.
Step 4) Annual stocktake reveals soaring levels of book disappearance, because books aren't issued properly, are cunningly nicked, people get frustrated with the machine and just took them meaning to bring them back sometime anyway but forgot...

So I've come across as pretty critical so far. Some of this stuff is actually really good. I absolutely agree that a book recommendation engine would be a massive boon, since even if readers don't want to use it themselves, staff could tap in some of their favourite books and get recommendations for them. National membership cards sound like a good idea. Coffee shops are a great idea, and are in fact already found in a number of libraries, like the branch near my parents' home.

On the other hand again, like most of you, I think diversifying is a terrible idea for libraries. It usually helps for an organisation to have coherent goals. "Providing free media for the public to use and borrow" seems like a reasonable one. Some things, like story times and literacy classes, actually tie into that. Once you start mixing in childcare, health advice, professional networking and business, it's going to go to pot. Apart from anything else, you won’t be able to recruit staff able to handle all those responsibilities for the wages library staff get (or indeed, at all).

Back to the buying and selling of books. Also a terrible idea, as Kyra says. Here’s another thing...
In such a case it would, I suppose, be convenient to be able to pay the library for permission to simply keep that copy rather than having to return it, but then you'd have bought a used copy, complete with bar-code, clear plastic sleeve, Dewey decimal sticker on the spine, and glued-in slip of paper covered in date-stamps. Which means the library would have to charge you less than the recommended retail price for it, and would also have to buy a new copy for lending and spend time sticking all those things onto it.
Would you like some more problems to go with that? Well, for one, that scheme removes the nice clear distinction between library stock and non-library stock, because you now own this library-marked book. When libraries actually sell off old stock, we spend ages deleting computer records, removing labels, marking them with big "removed from library stock" stamps and making the librarian sign them. Otherwise, how does anyone know it wasn't just nicked? It’ll set off all kinds of alarms as well, in libraries and maybe shops, because of those security tags we added. Of course, putting all that stuff on in the first place cost money, because it took time and materials. So if we were selling it off before we actually wanted rid of it, we’d have to charge more for it – otherwise the library would lose money on each copy. Also, bookshops would stop giving libraries the nice discounts they currently get, because they’d be in competition.

So it’s back to having new copies to sell. Which would go... where? In the library building? Which may no longer exist, and anyway, is already short of space for books to borrow? So what you actually end up with is a government-funded bookshop with free internet, a crèche and a coffee shop, but without any staff (who have all been replaced by self-service machines – so, robotic Teasmaid childminders, anyone?).

Okay. Enough. Time to wrap up with Kyra’s question...

But I bet most of us here don't use public libraries much (44); certainly not as our main source of reading (or listening, viewing, playing) material. Am I right? And if so... why don't we?

True dat. Well, I have a few reasons. One is simply that my tastes are definitely obscure. I read very little mainstream fiction, mostly sci-fi and fantasy, although I do use the older childrens’/teen/YA sections of the library a fair bit. I’m also multilingual**, so a significant minority of the media I use is in other languages. Oxford supports them better than many places, but still has almost nothing I actually want to use in those languages, given my tastes. I can often borrow the former type of media – the latter I simply have to buy, or not use at all. And thirdly? Well, I work in an academic library. I can borrow most of the non-fiction I want from work. But when I’ve worked my way through the pile of stuff I got over Christmas, I’ll probably be back down to the library...

*yes, I know they might not be able to go to a building, and might find an online version more useful. It depends on the disability, really.

**I am honestly not as smug and pretentious as that makes me sound.
Melissa G. at 23:27 on 2010-01-19
I wonder if another problem with lack of people using libraries comes from how easy it is to just go to say, Barnes and Noble, sit down with a pile of books, read them, re-shelve them (if the customer is nice), and then leave without buying anything. Why go to the library when the bookstore can basically be the same thing, provided you have a bunch of hours to kill? I used to work in a bookstore, and it infuriated me when people sat there and read the books and left without buying anything. "That's what a library is for!" I would cry.

I was recently very grateful for my town library because I was able to find and photocopy the ten pages I needed out of the Writer's Market and thus didn't have to buy the book. Libraries are definitely extremely helpful as far as research goes, and I suspect the internet has unfortunately made going to the library feel unnecessary or obsolete. T_T
Robinson L at 00:06 on 2010-01-20
Both of you who are getting technical details errors -- would you mind emailing webmaster at ferretbrain with when / where you get the error and the content of the comment that's causing it?

Thanks, Rami, but it seems to be working for both of us, now. Must've just been a hiccup. (That said, I'll be sure to e-mail you if it comes back.) at 15:31 on 2010-01-20
I was recently very grateful for my town library because I was able to find and photocopy the ten pages I needed out of the Writer's Market and thus didn't have to buy the book. Libraries are definitely extremely helpful as far as research goes, and I suspect the internet has unfortunately made going to the library feel unnecessary or obsolete. T_T

That's a good point, Melissa, and something I wanted to comment on. The internet is a mixed blessing as far as research goes, which is one reason why I'm always pointing kids and parents to our LIBRARY WEBSITE (if you're curious, it's - but I haven't touched the teenspace in quite awhile). Our library system spends thousands of dollars for specialized databases which our patrons can access for free with a library card. They can do this from home! Of course, a few of these databases are available only in the library - the historical New York Times, for example. We can get our patrons full text articles from the Times from the 19th century! and yes, some of them do need that. We also have recommended websites, etc. Also blogs, facebook pages, and podcasts - my sister is world-famous for her podcast now, having done lots of author interviews, among other things. (She's the kiscocast at podomatic.) I have a sneaking suspicion that the net has made libraries more, not less, relevant, because patrons are wandering around the net unguided. Not that that isn't a good thing for them to do! But guidance can help, and we offer it. What's more, it can still be faster, cheaper and more efficient to get certain types of information from books.

But, as for using libraries as a first source for books, music, etc - I do that all the time! I basically won't buy a book I haven't read, or music I haven't heard before. And we've got listening stations in the library, as well as lots of books to take out for free. I'd say at least half of what I read each year comes from the library, and I read a lot. But then again, I'm a librarian. )
Jamie Johnston at 23:07 on 2010-01-20
Thanks for the comments, everyone! Much interestingness therein. Some responses:

@ Kyra, concerning foonotes: I like footnotes. :)

@ Arthur and others, concerning DVDs and games: I'd completely forgotten that libraries tend to charge for borrowing these things because I almost never borrow them. But yes, Robinson, I believe most public libraries in the UK do charge. And that means, Arthur, that you're quite right about this putting them in direct competition with commercial rental places. In fact it's curious, now that I think of it, that although the lending model has never really been commercially applied to books (aside from subscription libraries) or music it has been applied to films and games. And yes, if public libraries are offering something that's also available commercially then the only real justification for that can be that the libraries are offering it for free, which in this case they aren't. It's the same point as the book-selling proposition.

On the other hand I wouldn't go along with you in saying that libraries shouldn't lend DVDs and games even if they did it for free. The suggestion that 'if a library is being offered as a public service then it should be designed to allow for the borrowing of materials which aren't available for borrowing from other avenues' would mean that if someone suddenly started a business lending books out for a price then public libraries should stop lending books. I think the 'free' part of the equation is sufficient justification for libraries to lend things that are also available to be borrowed elsewhere for a price. But I do agree, as I said in the article, that libraries should take special care to stock things that aren't otherwise widely available even for a price, or only for a high price, as well as things that can easily be bought or rented elsewhere.

@ Sonia and Dan, concerning 'texts': I suspect this is where I flail a bit because I did a history degree and don't really fully understand what 'text' means in arts-speak. [Googles quickly. Finds nothing helpful.] Hmm... does 'texts' help you to find the distinction I had most trouble with, namely the line between a DVD of a film and a screening of the same film? I can sort of see that a screening of a film has more trouble qualifying as a text than a DVD does because 'text' somehow implies a physical object rather than an event. Only the physical-object-ness is presumably just an association and not part of the actual meaning of 'text', because words on a computer screen would, I imagine, also qualify to be a text. [Flails.]

@ Shimmin and Mary-J-59, concerning their actually being actual library people: Ace! It's really good to have your insights here. More specific responses follow.

@ Shimmin, concerning space and stock: Yes, one of the ways in which my nearest branch is rubbish is that a couple of years ago they took about about half the shelf-space and filled it with a couple of dozen computer terminals. But I don't hold much of grudge about that because actually that branch was, at least subjectively, rubbish before that anyway, in that it didn't have any books that interested me at all. And I didn't even mind that too much because I'm clearly not representative of the local community it's serving (which is basically a massive council estate with a high proportion of young children and elderly people, and that's what the book-stock reflects), and anyway there's a much more middle-class middle-to-high-brow branch a very short bus-ride away.

I'm really not sure how I feel about internet-access at public libraries, which is why I didn't say anything about it in the article. It makes sense in that libraries are about providing access to products of the human mind, and the internet is a very important way to access many of those products, and access to the internet isn't available for free anywhere else (not counting places like coffee-shops where it's only free if you bring your own wi-fi enabled lap-top and you buy a coffee). On the other hand, as you say, it takes up an awful lot of room (and, no doubt, money) that I'd selfishly prefer to see filled with things I haven't already got at home. Also, isn't the government aiming to get the whole country onto broadband within the next ten years anyway? But maybe that includes libraries as part of the planned provision.

Much as I struggle to find any logical reason to exclude media other than books from the core purpose of libraries, I did rejoice when I read in Shirley Burnham's contribution to the consultation document the sentence, 'We love [our library] because it is filled with books'!

@ Robinson, concerning borrowing or buying: I don't really know enough about British book-habits, let alone non-British ones, to guess at whether it's cultural or not. The survey is a UK one, yes. My own practice (as a Londoner born and bred of Anglo-Irish ancestry, if that makes any difference to anything) is that I almost never buy fiction because I almost never read any work of fiction more than once, but my non-fiction reading comes about equally from books I buy (if I think I'm going to want to refer to them again after first reading) and books I borrow from a subscription library that I belong to (because no public lending library could adequately cater to my Roman history addiction). But I don't know many people who use public libraries much. I can't recall the last time I went to someone's house and saw a library book.

@ Mary-J-59, concerning definitions: The main thing that stops me adopting your definition is 'information', for the reasons I mention in the article. I see you include entertainment in that, and perhaps I'm just quibbling about semantics, but to me the word 'information' doesn't naturally include entertainment. Anyway, don't let me repeat myself, let's see what else you've said...

Now, 'disseminate' is interesting. One of the contributors in Empower, inform, enrich also says something about 'provision of information'. My reaction to that is a sort of mild scepticism: I wonder, is it the job of public libraries to actively bring information / entertainment to people as well as just sort of sitting there and saying, 'Here it is, have a rummage'? On the one hand it's important to promote the library and its contents so that people know it's there and what it can do, but I'd be a bit hesitant about moving from there to actually having as part of the core purpose any element of bringing content to people rather than giving people access to content, just because as soon as you start bringing content to people you're also necessarily selecting what to bring them, and that gets sticky. Anyway that probably isn't really what you meant, but it's reminded me of my worry about the 'provision' strand of thinking in the consultation.

The community element is interesting too, perhaps partly because it didn't occur to me at all and I wonder why. I suppose it may be because I don't in any meaningful sense belong to any community that my local public libraries could be expected to serve. I don't know my neighbours. I don't think my local library, or the slightly less local one that I actually use, have events like the ones you describe at yours. I don't think so. It sounds nice. I rather wish authors would do readings and signings at libraries as well as at bookshops - it's another thing that would go well with adopting a more Borders-like atmosphere - but of course one can see why they don't: readings and signings are for selling books, and you ain't gonna sell books at a library (unless the minister for culture has her way). And of course having library staff who really know their stock and can make informed, accurate, and horizon-expanding recommendations would be awesome. It's tremendously encouraging to know that such people exist. And, to be fair, I can't say for certain that they don't exist in Wandsworth: it's been a long time since I engaged any librarian in conversation for longer than thirty seconds. That's really just because I'm the sort of person whose instinct is to browse and guess rather than to ask. Anyway, you're clearly right that a recommendation engine, however good, is not going to be better than a really good librarian, especially one who can get to know you and know what you like. I just wonder how many of those there are in the UK and whether one can realistically expect to have enough (especially given the meagre pay I imagine is on offer - as Shimmin confirms). I think back to a decade ago when Foyles, the famous bookshop in London, had no working computers and a totally incomprehensible shelving system and the only way to find what one wanted was to ask one of the shop assistants: there was about one chance in three of getting the assistant who had worked there for years and knew that department's stock inside out and had probably read it all personally, and if you got that assistant it was brilliant, but the other two chances in three you got someone who couldn't do anything more helpful than gesture vaguely at twenty feet of shelves and say that there might be something on that topic somewhere in there. Nowadays most of the expert assistants have gone, but they have a decent computer catalogue and a rational distribution of books on shelves, and on average the chances of finding what you want have increased. That's why I like the idea of a recommendation engine. It might even get people to use libraries who don't at the moment: I've heard people say that they quite dislike Amazon in principle but they still buy books from there because they find Amazon's recommendation engine so good. But hey, if we can get lots of clones of you and your sister to come and work in Britain's public libraries that'd be cool. :)

@ Shimmin, concerning definitions: I quite like your formula of 'media that can practically be lent'. That has a ring of good sense about it. It does still leave the problem of reference libraries, since one starts to feel a bit silly saying, 'This library contains things that could be borrowed if we allowed you to borrow them, which we don't'. But perhaps that's a minor problem.

@ Shimmin, Melissa, and Mary-J-59, concerning online stuff: Like you, Shimmin, I wouldn't like to see any move away from physical libraries to virtual ones, and you're quite right that the political reality, as with self-service, is that a move toward virtual libraries would inevitably be used as a justification for cutting back physical ones. Then again, in an ideal world, it seems to me there wouldn't be any great harm in expanding online provision as an addition, rather than as a replacement. I absolutely agree with what you say about serving the people who really need to be served and who aren't going to be served anywhere else. On the other hand I'm just a teeny bit troubled by your last couple of sentences in that paragraph: 'The people who are likely to use an online library are, I'd suggest, the literate, well-heeled public with an interest in reading, a lot of their own books and stable lives. Not the hard-up, frequently-moving people who don't really go in for books.' What you say there is absolutely true, but one could detect here just a hint of an implication - and I stress that I don't think this is what you're actually saying, but it's something that one can imagine somebody might say - that 'the hard-up, frequently-moving people who don't really go in for books' are the people public libraries should be trying to serve and 'the literate, well-heeled public with an interest in reading, a lot of their own books and stable lives', by contrast, are not. Which would be wrong, I think, because public libraries should serve the whole public. Not that they shouldn't weight their service to some extent in favour of people who are under-served elsewhere - and similarly, as I said above in agreement with Arthur, it's perfectly proper for them also to over-provide types of content that are under-provided elsewhere - but as important it is to be there for people who can't read very well (to help them if they want to improve) or aren't very interested in reading (to help them if they change their minds), it would surely be daft not to recognize that in many ways the core constituency of a library is precisely 'the literate... public with an interest in reading'. But anyway, I think the point we agree on is that online content and online delivery shouldn't replace physical face-to-face services.

Mary-J, I'm quite attracted by your model of libraries guiding users to the useful bits of the internet. Certainly my experience with research on the internet has been very mixed, and there are certainly some areas of knowledge - here's my Roman history again - where the internet contains an awful lot of rubbish and very little of any merit, and someone who didn't already know a fair bit in such an area would have trouble telling which was which, so I'd imagine it would be very useful for a trusted service to help with that. But I think you're probably right, Melissa, that a lot of people feel that the internet is now a much easier and perhaps also more comprehensive way to do research than a library is, even if they're wrong about that. But perhaps if public libraries had a helpful online presence like Mary-J describes people wouldn't see it so much as an 'either / or' situation.

@ Shimmin, concerning other small matters: I'm interested to hear that coffee-shops in libraries are already happening. How does it work out? Is the set-up pretty much like a bookshop with a café in, or do people have to check books out before they go in? Are they sealed off from the silent parts of the library to stop sound getting through?

Glad to hear the pratical problems of libraries selling books are so numerous: maybe that'll discourage the minister from trying to make it happen.

Oh, and incidentally, I'm not Kyra, but I take the mistake as a great compliment!

@ Melissa, concerning reading books without buying them: That's a really good point; but when you ask, 'Why go to the library when the bookstore can basically be the same thing, provided you have a bunch of hours to kill?', one can also flip that around and say, 'If all you want to do is read books without buying them, why go to the bookstore and not the library?' That's one of the reasons I think the Starbucks / Borders atmosphere idea is worth considering: if people are (ab)using bookshops, and indeed coffee-shops, for the purpose for which libraries are specifically designed, then there must be something that makes those shops more pleasant or convenient places to do that than the libraries are. I don't know what the atmosphere's like in branches of Barnes & Noble (we don't have them over here), but I'd guess it's more friendly and relaxed than most public libraries, or at any rate more friendly and relaxed than the stereotype of the silent library people have in their minds.

Whew! Sorry for the longness, and thanks again for reading and commenting.
Jamie Johnston at 23:14 on 2010-01-20
PS: Encouraged by my own exhortations, I today finally went to the library to try to borrow Graceling. They didn't have it in stock, and I asked whether they could summon it from another library. It turns out that they've recently started charging for this! Indeed the fact that it used to be free was, apparently, just an administrative glitch: their old computer system kept going wrong when it tried to charge people for making reservations, so they had an amnesty until they could fix it.

I'm rather disappointed, and therefore in a fit of contrariness I shall not pay the fairly token charge but shall in stead betake myself unto the library they would have ordered it up from and get it myself.
Melissa G. at 23:17 on 2010-01-20
then there must be something that makes those shops more pleasant or convenient places to do that than the libraries are. I don't know what the atmosphere's like in branches of Barnes & Noble (we don't have them over here), but I'd guess it's more friendly and relaxed than most public libraries, or at any rate more friendly and relaxed than the stereotype of the silent library people have in their minds.

That's a very good point! I wonder if that is indeed it. Barnes and Noble does have a coffee shop, and it's got lots of cushy armchairs to sit around in. And there definitely isn't anyone shushing you. It would be interesting to see how big a factor atmosphere plays in people's decision to go to the bookstore rather than the library.
Arthur B at 00:06 on 2010-01-21
On the other hand I wouldn't go along with you in saying that libraries shouldn't lend DVDs and games even if they did it for free. The suggestion that 'if a library is being offered as a public service then it should be designed to allow for the borrowing of materials which aren't available for borrowing from other avenues' would mean that if someone suddenly started a business lending books out for a price then public libraries should stop lending books.

Ah, but here's where the chicken and egg thing comes in.

I would argue that the fact that nobody has ever started a pay-to-borrow service for books might have something to do with the fact that by the time public literacy hit a sufficient level to make such a thing seriously profitable, public libraries were already a fact of life, so it wouldn't be sensible to start such a business - anyone who wanted to borrow books could do so from their local library for free.

However, it seems (to my recollection at least) that libraries were pretty slow off the mark when it came to offering videos or DVDs or computer games for rental, which left a natural gap in the market that the likes of Blockbuster were only too happy to fill. If most public libraries had had a reasonably well-stocked video section in the 1980s, I'm willing to bet the commercial video rental sector would simply never have existed in the first place.

Having studied EC competition law quite recently as part of legal training, I suspect there may be very troubling legal problems with UK libraries offering DVDs and games for free. Essentially - as you allude to in the article - you'd have a situation where facilities which are funded by the taxpayers using said funding to offer a service currently offered by the commercial sector, at a price the commercial sector couldn't possibly compete with. Nobody makes a fuss about this sort of thing when it comes to books and music because, as you point out, there isn't actually anyone operating in that rental and lending sector on a commercial basis. When nobody's profit margin is being hurt, nobody sues or complains to the Office of Fair Trading. But if libraries start offering DVDs for free, you can bet that Blockbuster and others will kick up a hell of a fuss.
Frank at 00:57 on 2010-01-21
But if libraries start offering DVDs for free, you can bet that Blockbuster and others will kick up a hell of a fuss.

I don't think so.
My Library offers DVDs. I have a new DVD on hold. There are less than 20 copies available for a population of nearly 700k. I'm 300 in line that is currently 500 deep. Many people won't be able to wait the months it will take in order to receive their copy so will either go to a brick and mortar or online video rental business.

But then, I'm not of England so can't speak of it with any authority.
Shim at 14:35 on 2010-01-21
@ Jamie and Arthur, concerning media: I’m inclined to agree with both of you. I like that libraries provide a range of media, and for example, I’d be horrified by the idea that I should start having to rent books (‘importation’ costs I can live with, though I don’t like them). Some libraries are pretty good at DVD selections, for example, stocking a wide range of ‘world’ films that aren’t so easy to find. Since there’s already ways to get the latest stuff (like actually watching TV or films, let alone renting DVDs) I don’t think they should bother with that market.
On the other hand, I’m not sure I’m happy with paying for AV materials. I mean, in practice it doesn’t bother me much, but as a matter of policy I find it a bit weird. The price divide between books and AV isn’t that huge, so arguing greater replacement costs due to wear and tear just doesn’t wash with me.

@ Jamie concerning computers in libraries: I agree the question of internet access, or indeed computer access, isn’t clear-cut. It’s extremely popular in every library I’ve heard of, which suggests it’s a good idea. The problem is, I feel it should have been invested in properly, with new space provided for all the PCs, laptop tables etcetera, rather than shoehorning them into existing space without thinking it through. I can't remember the last time I heard of a public library being extended. The government's broadband plan isn't a bad thing, but it does rather assume that everyone has the money and space to have their own computer, and keep said computer up to date. I imagine for some people that won't be a priority.

There’s another shelf-space problem actually, which I think is due to accessibility and/or health and safety requirements. The academic libraries where I work typically have shelves from floor to at least eight foot off the ground, often more like ten. They also tend to be quite close together. Finally, we have a significant proportion of our lesser-used stock in space-efficient rolling stacks[a] in staff-only areas, which we fetch on request. Public libraries typically have shelves no higher than six foot, if that; and the shelves are often quite widely spaced. This makes them lighter and more welcoming, as well as easier for people to use, and avoids falls. However, it means a much lower density of books in the space. While I’m not sure introducing high shelves would be viable, I do think it’d be a great idea to bring in rolling stacks so that people could at least have books fetched up from the same building.

@ Jamie, Mary-J concerning library events: UK libraries aren't too different from what Mary's described, Jamie. A quick web search suggests there are a fair number of authors who do readings in libraries, although I suspect it's weighed towards children's authors and towards local authors, rather than 'heavyweights'. There's no particular reason why they couldn't come along with a vanload of books, like a band on tour with CDs. The amount libraries do partly seems to depend on whether they're linked to a community centre, where facilities for meetings or events are to hand, or stand-alone libraries.

You can see some of the stuff on at the library I mentioned here

Recommendations are trickier, because it's so personal. You can do something by just observing which books tend to go out and who borrows them, but that's likely to mean recommending quite popular, mainstream books rather than expanding horizons. Unless you have a personal interest in the genre, there's not going to be the same enthusiasm or depth of knowledge.

@ Jamie:'s been a long time since I engaged any librarian in conversation for longer than thirty seconds.
I'd be a bit surprised if you ever have. Librarians tend to be in offices and meetings, rather than actually dealing with readers. There might be a librarian in a big library, but not usually smaller ones. Some of the staff may be qualified librarians, but their job is still likely to be 'library assistant'. In smaller libraries you can get to know the public quite well, but city and town ones are much more anonymous.
I've heard people say that they quite dislike Amazon in principle but they still buy books from there because they find Amazon's recommendation engine so good.
I cheat; so long as you have an account, you can claim to have 'bought' all kinds of things you like to generate recommendations.

@ Jamie, concerning online stuff: glad you liked it. To some extent it works for reference libraries, because although you can't take things away, you do usually wander off with them to read/use somewhere in the building, rather than admiring them on the walls as in a gallery. I agree it's not quite the same, though.

@ Jamie, concerning definitions: yes, my phrasing wasn't ideal. Public libraries should serve the public, which means everyone, and I didn't mean to provide an implication that some groups are the ones libraries "should" be serving primarily. People's interest in reading (or lack thereof) is a separate matter from their personal circumstances, and I've unhelpfully conflated the two in the course of making a point. Highly literate people with ready access to books elsewhere are a perfectly valid group of library users, and quite possibly the majority.

I suppose what I was getting at was, those with lots of books or money have less need for libraries because of those alternatives. For people who (whatever the details) don't have so many alternatives, the need for libraries is greater, so I feel it makes sense to give them higher priority when judging policy. I expect that the second group are more likely to be inconvenienced by a switch to virtual libraries, online content and postal lending, which suggests to me that it would be a bad idea.
Adding online facilities, on the other hand, is likely to make things easier and broaden the audience for libraries, so I'm all in favour so long as it's done properly.

@Jamie, Mary-J concerning internet gateways: I agree that this sounds like a great idea. I've had a quick look at your internet portal, which seems useful. On that note, I quite like the idea of being able to run a search that indicated 'reliability' in some way, either with marks of some kind (like a 'safe search' plugin in a browser marking safe and unsafe sites) or as something you could sort by, just as you can sort by date or popularity in Amazon. So you'd search for, say, "Julius Caesar", and you'd be able to tell that some sites were academically reliable and others weren't. It's the kind of thing library staff and researchers get quite good at, but members of the public might not really understand. I suppose you'd need people to check all the sites though, and mark them in some way.

@ Jamie concerning coffee shops: the ones I've seen basically have a sealed-off room that's a café and sells snacks, coffee etc. There was no security to stop you taking books in, because they're inside the library itself. Very reasonable, I thought. So it's similar to the cafés in somewhere like Waterstones, where it's a room within the bookshop.

Oh, and I'll tell you what it is with misnaming you - I first noticed the article when Kyra posted that comment, and assumed until I came that it was one of hers. Apparently part of my brain continued to think so!

@ Melissa, Jamie concerning bookshop abuse: thinking about the major bookshops around here, I'm sure the pleasant surroundings have a lot to do with it. They tend to be well-carpeted, very clean, and often aesthetically quite pleasing. Where there are chairs, they're usually comfortable, individual seats, and sturdy. Libraries frequently haven't had a refit in three decades, are starkly neon-lit or under-lit, smell a bit musty, have slightly stained school-type rough tile carpeting, and offer wobbly plastic chairs or sagging padded benches for you to sit on. As Jamie said, there's also... not necessarily a rule, but you're discouraged from making much noise.

Of course, there's a difference here. Bookshops have an income stream to pay for refits; and they're hard to justify in libraries, but presumably affect the number of customers coming to a shop.

I'm enjoying the chat.

[a]Sometimes 'mobile shelving' or other terms.
Jamie Johnston at 18:07 on 2010-01-25
@ Arthur, concerning DVDs and games: I'm sure you're quite right about the way the current situation came into being, but of course 'Things are this way because of a perfectly comprehensible series of historical contingencies' isn't the same as 'Things should be this way.' After some reflexion, I think there are two reasons I'm instinctively resisting your argument.

One is that I still want there to be some underlying logical principle to what services public libraries do (or should) provide and what services they don't (or shouldn't), even if I can't identify it. And it seems to me unlikely that any such underlying principle, consistently applied, would produce a library system that lent, say, Schindler's ark for free but not Schindler's list. But this isn't, I admit, a very strong argument, for two reasons. First, it's a bit feeble for me to say, 'I believe there's some kind of principle that means you're wrong but I don't know what it is'; secondly, it is actually possible to advance a coherent principle that would support your view.

But that second weakness in my first argument is also the strength of my second argument (if that makes any sense), because the principle that would support your view (and a principle that you seem, indeed, to be advancing by implication) is that public libraries should exist to provide things that are not commercially available but should not try to provide things that are commercially available. Which at the very least is far from self-evident. This was the point I think I was unconsciously groping for when I gave the hypothetical example of a commercial book-hire operation. If one follows that radically minimal philosophy of public services, the existence of a commercial book-hire operation would make it wrong for public libraries to lend books for free; if one applies the same philosophy to other public services one would also have to abolish subsidized public transport (because cars are commercially available) and public health services (because medical treatment is commercially available). Now, you could say, 'Don't be melodramatic: of course there are some goods that society considers important enough that they should be provided free at the point of use, and transport and medical treatment are clearly in that category, but the things that libraries provide are not.' But if that's the case then I find it hard to see justification for having public libraries at all. It's true that one can't currently rent books as one can rent DVDs and games, but, as you point out, this is probably only because libraries already dominate that market so completely that it would be pointless for any business to try to penetrate it. The only difference between public libraries lending DVDs and games for free and public libraries lending books for free is that in the former case it's a publicly funded behemoth using its disproportionate strength to drive private companies out of the market-place and in the latter it's a publicly funded behemoth using its disproportionate strength to stop private companies entering the market-place to begin with. So, unless you consider 'We got there first' an adequate justification for what you otherwise regard as unjustifiable, you should surely object to public libraries lending books just as much as you would object to public libraries lending DVDs and games. If not, the only other basis for making the distinction, as far as I can see, is that it's more in the public interest that people have access to books than that they have access to films, which is a proposition I'd have trouble understanding.

Sorry if the preceding paragraph seems like a parade of straw men: I'm not trying to misrepresent your views, just to explain that the reason I'm resisting your proposition is that when I imagine what principles could lead someone to advance that proposition I find it difficult to accept those principles. But if the principles that lead you to your conclusion aren't the ones I've argued against above, please ignore the foregoing!

On the legal point:

... as part of legal training...

You too, eh? :) Well, I have to admit I never studied any substantive European competition law, but as I understand it article 106 (formerly 86) as applied by the ECJ allows a member state to provide and support 'services of general interest' (i.e. public services) as long as any anti-competitive features of the provision of the service are necessary for the delivery of the service, and leaves the determination of whether something is a 'service of general interest', and how to provide it, up to the member state. In a quick rummage on the ECJ website and Eur-lex I've found the ECJ intervening to prevent a public postal service being given a monopoly over deluxe services that went beyond the public-service remit of providing a basic affordable postal service, but, relevant here, it made no objection to the existence of a monopoly over the basic service (case C-320/91); likewise the court seems to have had no problem with a state-run telecommunications monopoly as long as it didn't abuse its monopoly by preventing people from plugging any telephones into its network except the telephones that the public company itself sold (case C-18/88). Also I'm not even sure whether free public services fall within the scope of the rules at all since they cover 'economic undertakings' and case C-475/99 paragraphs 19-21 seem to treat 'economic undertaking' as requiring some element of payment by users, even if it's payment at an artificially low rate.
Arthur B at 18:26 on 2010-01-25
I'm sure you're quite right about the way the current situation came into being, but of course 'Things are this way because of a perfectly comprehensible series of historical contingencies' isn't the same as 'Things should be this way.' After some reflexion, I think there are two reasons I'm instinctively resisting your argument.

But on the other hand, "Things should this way" is a different thing from "Things could be this way"...

The only difference between public libraries lending DVDs and games for free and public libraries lending books for free is that in the former case it's a publicly funded behemoth using its disproportionate strength to drive private companies out of the market-place and in the latter it's a publicly funded behemoth using its disproportionate strength to stop private companies entering the market-place to begin with. So, unless you consider 'We got there first' an adequate justification for what you otherwise regard as unjustifiable, you should surely object to public libraries lending books just as much as you would object to public libraries lending DVDs and games.

This is actually the point my competition law argument hinges on. The Macrotron case established a very odd principle that the definition of a "commercial service" may in some respects hinge on what sort of activities the private sector can and has catered to in the past; even though in Germany there was a state-appointed job recruitment office with a legal monopoly, because private job recruitment offices had operated in the past (and did operate in other member states) its activities were considered commercial in nature. So by extension of that logic, loaning books wouldn't be considered commercial because it's not an activity associated with the private sector, but the loaning of DVDs might be because it is. But you're right that the cases you cite (and the FENIN case) may suggest otherwise.

Now that I've had more time to consider it I suspect that the real legal issue lies with copyright. There's a rental and lending right which allows copyright owners to object to the authorised rental or free loaning of works in which copyright subsists. Book-based libraries predate this right by quite a bit, and so the publishing industry as it stands grew up in an environment where libraries were a fact of life, so I imagine the agreements the publishers have with the libraries are reasonably generous to the libraries. After all, the book publishers could hardly stand up and start demanding more royalties once the rental and lending right came in, they'd look like utter villains and would probably lose a lot of public sympathy (which in turn might end up threatening the continued existence of the rental and lending right in the first place, if it were widely seen to be being horribly abused). On the other hand, libraries entered the DVD game after the rental and lending right was established, and consequently their licensing agreements with the DVD publishers or relevant collecting societies are probably much less favourable.

For what it's worth, I don't think it would be morally right for Blockbuster's to object to libraries loaning out DVDs for free. I just think it's something that they would do to avoid their business being hurt, and I think on a purely pragmatic level that libraries really can't afford to get into that sort of quagmire. I would love to have a local DVD library that loaned out DVDs for free. (I kind of resent DVDs creeping into conventional libraries because they take shelf space away from the books.) I just don't think it's practically possible, not without sparking off a really ugly and very avoidable fight.

I know this is far away from the world of ideals you're trying to talk about. But real life beats idealism up, steals its wallet, cuts off its nose, murders its family and burns down its house... especially when someone's profit margin is at stake. ;)
Jamie Johnston at 18:33 on 2010-01-25
@ Shimmin, concerning rolling stacks and various other things: Ah yes, that's a very good point. Indeed I remember some of the academic libraries in Oxford (certainly the Chinese Studies library on Worcester Street and maybe also the lower levels of the Sackler) having rolling stacks that ordinary library-users were allowed to crank around by themselves, but one can imagine the sort of heart attack that idea would give the health & safety people if anyone suggested it for a public library. I guess the logic is that if you're clever enough to be in an Oxford academic library you're also clever enough to check that you aren't about to crush someone to death between two giant bookcases (an example of the 'academic capability = common sense' fallacy). But certainly it would make a lot of sense to use them for storage that could be accessed by library staff. In fact I seem to recall discovering, among many arcane library-related facts one turns up when googling for research on an article like this, that one or more public libraries in Lyon (France) has an underground bookstack and that the French word for it is 'silo'. Anyway, back to the point... Yes, that would clearly be a very good idea, if only libraries had the resources to do it.

In fact that's probably what one ends up saying about many things, like additional online services (also provided it's done properly, as you say), coffee-shops, comfy chairs, recommendation engines, and so on. One can see why a minister might be driven to saying, 'Let's sell books, that'll bring some money in without having to raise taxes or cut spending on policemen and sick babies!' But.

Well, it'll be interesting to see what, if anything, emerges from the consultation. I think it closes tomorrow. I've half a mind to sent in a link to this article and discussion as a response, but responses have to be done through an online questionnaire thingy so that wouldn't work.
Jamie Johnston at 19:01 on 2010-01-25
@ Arthur: I see what you mean about lending rights. I don't know anything, really, about how those currently work with respect to books or DVDs, but I'm aware that many people in the book-publishing world think the current regime of public lending rights is unfairly stacked against authors and / or publishers; and it all gets caught up in the mess with rights for audio and electronic versions of printed books and so on. No doubt a case could be made for having a massive renegotiation of the whole thing, but then again that might be appalling idea given the likelihood that such a negotiation would collapse in acrimony. I must admit, my brains starts to shut down whenever I think about intellectual property because I can't get past the first bit where I'm asked to accept that ownership is a helpful concept to apply to goods that are intangible and can be infinitely reproduced...

Anyway, I shall take the advice implicit in your metaphor and cross the street to evade the ominous footsteps of real life coming up behind me. :)
Arthur B at 19:38 on 2010-01-25
I must admit, my brains starts to shut down whenever I think about intellectual property because I can't get past the first bit where I'm asked to accept that ownership is a helpful concept to apply to goods that are intangible and can be infinitely reproduced...

IP is, in fact, an example of one of those areas where if you sat down and worked out a system from scratch, you wouldn't get anything remotely resembling what we have today, but the sheer cost of actually uprooting everything and changing it all around is sufficiently massive that it's not viable to just burn everything down and start again.

Copyright is far and away the most broken variety of IP though, because a) the sort of rights that come with it have increased over time, and b) the sort of thing you can get copyright for has broadened as well. Patents, designs, and trade marks have had similar things happen, but to a much lesser extent, and usually only one of those categories has seen much expansion, and there's been fairly regular efforts to tidy up and standardise things (though the US patent system is still wretchedly out of step with the rest of the world). Copyright has just sprawled in an ugly, organic, muddled way with no clear philosophy behind it, and with occasionally really bizarre decisions being made. (Did you know that the current Copyright, Designs and Patents Act allows Great Ormond Street to collect royalties for Peter Pan in perpetuity, regardless of the fact that any other work would have entered the public domain by now?)
Shim at 20:38 on 2010-01-25
Copyright is far and away the most broken variety of IP though, because a) the sort of rights that come with it have increased over time, and b) the sort of thing you can get copyright for has broadened as well.
It's slightly weird, also, when you think about how it relates to other professions. I mean, on the one hand, I want my favourite authors (etc.) to earn a 'fair' wage for the work they do and the pleasure they bring me. On the other hand, it works so differently from other jobs, because most people only get paid once for their work, no matter how much use is made of it. So website designers, or railway engineers, or people who produce a really useful spreadsheet for their company, all have to get on and make something else if they want the money to keep coming, even though their product might be used by thousands of people for many years.

I'm not saying they're directly equivalent, or I have a better idea; I'm just saying it's all a bit strange.
Sonia Mitchell at 21:24 on 2010-01-25
And that copyright is contingent on whose time you produced the work in. You do it as part of your job and the law doesn't care who created it, just who paid for it.
Arthur B at 22:03 on 2010-01-25
To be fair (in the UK at least) that partially depends on the attitude of your employer and your contract with them; "the employer owns the work" is just the default which applies if your employment contract doesn't say otherwise. You'd probably find that in jurisdictions where the employee owns by default, you'd just get a hell of a lot of employment contracts specifying that the employee assigns by default the work they produce in their work to their employer.

It sounds harsh, but it makes sense when you think about it. Imagine if a disgruntled ex-employee could charge you a royalty every time, say, you sold a VCR with the instruction manual they wrote, or a magazine with the logo they designed, or the computer software they wrote a crucial component of. It'd be impossible to do business because a potentially ridiculous number of people could claim ownership over bits and pieces of even your simplest products.
Sonia Mitchell at 22:30 on 2010-01-25
Oh absolutely - it's the only practical way to produce such things. I just thought it was another way in which copyright is weird. And until quite recently the copyright of any photograph belonged to the person who provided the film, which is straying from the point of libraries but I find interesting nonetheless.

Leading back to Shimmin's point, a work of art *can* be treated in the same way as the really useful spreadsheet or the railway design if the circumstances are right. If you have to write a poem for your employer, it will usually belong to them. OTOH, if you go home and write an equally good poem in your own time, it's yours.
Arthur B at 23:58 on 2010-01-25
When was the photograph thing changed? I'm pretty sure that's not in the CDPA 1988 and that was 22 years ago...
Shim at 07:44 on 2010-01-26
@ Jamie, concerning rolling stacks again: crushing people between rolling stacks is one of those things that sounds much easier than it is. Certainly, a malicious or stupid (or indeed, deaf) person could make someone else extremely uncomfortable by closing the stacks on them, and that could trigger a heart attack or other collapse. You might be able to break some bones if they were unlucky. I honestly don't know. What I do know is that modern stacks are designed to avoid this, which means the most likely scenario is you try to close the stacks while someone or something is inside, and the stacks pop out of their tracks to prevent/minimise crushing. Cue massive call-out charge. Kickstools are a particular problem.
So you still wouldn't want the Great British Public doing it, but it's less about killing people, more about causing trouble and expense.
Sonia Mitchell at 19:57 on 2010-01-26
@Arthur: Ah, but I'm still in denial about it being the 21st century. Any time after 1970 is recent.

I believe it was the 1988 act that changed the status. My photography books are elsewhere but <a href=" photography copyright ownership act uk before&hl=en&gl=uk&sig=AHIEtbR8ap8yYkNJluI0hmY40ZA7irzkjA">The Design and Artists Copyright Society has a good summary on page 2.

@Shimmin: That makes a lot of sense. I had no idea there were people in such specialised jobs as emergency stacks repairers :-)
Sonia Mitchell at 19:59 on 2010-01-26
HTML Fail. Trying again. at 21:08 on 2010-01-26
Arthur, I just wanted to mention that our library system lends DVDs, audio formats, and games on CD-ROM, for free, and has done for years. I could see that this might be an issue for blockbuster except that:
1. If you have a burning desire to see the latest pop hit right now, you're probably better off going to Blockbuster. If you're looking for a classic or foreign film, you might do better at the library.
2. Where books and audio are concerned, my sister's library (and now, mine as well) have an account with our local Border's bookstore. After all, we do buy the books and media! So why not buy from them? We also have an account with amazon, as well as our usual book purveyors. This means that we cooperate with the stores, rather than competing with them.

On another subject entirely - copyright. I was appalled to learn on livejournal that libraries in Ireland and the U.K. have to pay fees to bestselling authors like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling for the privilege of lending out their books. Is this actually true? Because I can't believe it. Why should libraries, which generally have little money and which legitimately purchased copies of books, have to pay a government fee for the privilege of lending them out?!

Now, I do understand that authors and artists have a right to be paid for their work. As an aspiring author myself, I certainly hope to achieve that goal! And I also believe strongly that producers deserve to be credited for their work - plagiarism is evil! (except, of course, where it's unintentional, but that's another can of worms.)But people also have a right to inform and entertain themselves, and therefore I believe just as strongly in libraries. Also, knowledge and wisdom grow through the exchange of ideas; art feeds new art, and that's the way it's always been. It seems to me there is too much corporate ownership granted by today's copyright laws, and too many people are locked out or blocked from accessing info. And it all comes down to money.

Here's an example my boss pointed out. She showed me an article about the proliferation of digital music, and how the providers (like my beloved Apple - seriously, I do love their products, but not their money-grubbing!) absolutely forbade sharing. The idea behind digital downloads is that *each person* who downloads gets to use his/her purchase, and it shouldn't be given to anyone else. But the idea behind libraries is that the library buys or is given books, etc, and then they lend them to anyone who qualifies as a member (usually for free). Nonmembers can use all the library's materials on-site. So - what do we do about digital formats? We want to purchase, and then lend. How are we going to continue doing that?

But that is yet another can of worms!
Arthur B at 23:07 on 2010-01-26
It is true that in the UK (and in a number of other countries) copyright owners have the right to prevent unauthorised lending of their works, and to charge royalties for lending. The Public Lending Right website gives a handy breakdown on the situation in each country that has adopted this.

Note that in most countries that adopt such a system, the payment that any one author can receive per year is capped - so JK Rowling didn't earn more than £6600 from loans of her books from UK libraries in 2007. For the likes of Rowling and King, this is a drop in the ocean. For smaller authors, however, this could be quite significant. So the authors who would benefit the most from this are the authors who are most in need of support for their art, and so it's a nice encouragement for those authors and their publishers to sell their books to libraries on favourable terms.

It should also be noted that in the UK at least public libraries don't pay a penny themselves towards this. Public libraries here are usually paid for by local councils, out of their own budget (raised via council tax), whilst the Public Lending Right budget is paid for from the central government budget (raised via a completely different set of taxes) via the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. They're two entirely different pots, one isn't sapping the other; it's less like a tax on libraries (who, I stress again, don't spend a penny of their budget on it) and more like a government scheme for rewarding authors whose works have been enjoyed by a significant segment of the library-going public.
Montavilla at 05:57 on 2010-01-27
I don't have a lot to say on the questions, which are making my little brain hurt. But I wanted to add some information about my local library. In my U.S. state, the libraries are organized and funded by county (which are smaller divisions of the state). The counties also fund their own separate school districts.

About ten years ago, our library system was struggling for funds. They adopted what I considered a brilliant strategy to raise funds. They put scaffolding all over the main library with signs that basically said, "Sorry about these huge platforms blocking your access to all our books. We have them here because we can't afford to fix the terrible structural problems in this building and are afraid it might collapse and kill you."

Lo and behold, the next Library levy passed with a large majority. So has every Library funding bill since. There's a beautiful new library building half a mile from my house with an attached coffee shop and condos above it. I wouldn't think that condos are part of the public mandate, but I'll bet they bring in a pretty penny to the system.

I remember our library hosting film nights when I was young. I know they lend out 16mm films in addition to VHS tabes, cassettes, CDs, audiobooks (both on CD and downloadable), DvDs, magazines, photographs, *and* paintings. All the buildings have conference rooms that are available for patrons to hold meetings in, and private reading rooms (with power outlets for my laptop and Wi-Fi!) I've been play readings and historical panels at the library. I usually go there to get my tax forms and to drop off my voter ballots.

The main library branch includes a gift shop--again, not part of the "services" but an attempt to provide revenue. I believe that it does sell some books, but it's not a large selection. It's more things like reading lights and gift items. There is a separate used book store that sells books, tapes, cds, and dvds that are no longer in shape to lend out. (Or, in the case of the HP series, where the demand for the hundreds of copies the library bought has dropped.) Once a year, the library holds a huge book sale--but the books are mainly donated by the community.

For years I volunteered with the Booktalking Program. This was a project where volunteers went into the classrooms to bring books to the students and try to get them excited about reading them. There are also homework programs, to provide help for students. The library also holds computer tutorials and labs, with workshops on using them to find employment.

I'm finding the library a great resource for entertainment. There's a Science Fiction and Fantasy section in my local branch, and a separate Manga section (not that I'm into Manga, but the kids seem to be). Every time I go to the library, I stop by the DVD shelves. There's usually something interesting that I've never thought to see. A classic film. An old television series. Even the occasional play or musical.

Because I can access the library database online, I often reserve DVDs, books, and music. It took me ages to get the Battlestar Galactica series, but I was able to see the entire four seasons through the library. Recently I got the Twin Peaks series and spent a weekend bathing in the nostalgia of it.

Now I'm combining the library with netflix and traditional video stores. I use the library for big sets and serendipity. If I want something specific and there's a big queue, then I might opt for Netflix instead. If I want it *today,* then I'll head to the video store.

Jamie Johnston at 22:50 on 2010-07-17
I'm resurrecting this comments-thread purely so I can post this, which is brilliant. (Via Bitches Get Stuff Done.)

(That will make no sense if you haven't seen these, but you're on the internet right now so I'm guessing you probably have.)
Shim at 09:10 on 2010-07-18
Expect to see that shortly playing in my library :)
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