RDN on library cuts on BBC R4 You & Yours

Local libraries, like woodlands, seem to inflame the English middle class in a very special way. So it was good fun to go on BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours and bat for the closure programme.

I know: if I say I enjoyed myself it’s like saying that I enjoy throwing librarians on the dole. I don’t have to bring to mind the nice librarians in my local library to feel quite strongly that the loss of librarians is sad. But it’s still fun to point out that (quite beyond the Luddism of local libraries) this is the class of issue which brings out the absurdity of middle class statism.

The middle class are the very people who will in the less-statist world create and dispense culture. They cling to the hope that it can be a matter of professionals and taxes, but I am pretty sure it shouldn’t and won’t be. Besides, I very much doubt that many of the present middle class protestors themselves use libraries much or that libraries are a very clever way of  addressing the pressing matter of civilising the underclass.

Anywhere, here’s a crib I prepared for my appearance.

10 Propositions on cutting Public Libraries
Books are now too cheap to be a matter for state intervention
We can get “books” to the poor in many digital forms
We can send books to the poor from central depots
Many spend half their year in “reading” environments: schools and universities
In the holidays, teachers could open up school and university libraries for all-comers
The informed middle class could help the ignorant access online information
Libraries could be closed but re-opened as community centres
Community Centres could extend their role to including reading, etc
Charity shops could improve their already excellent role as booksellers
Specialist books are already sent from depots to the inquisitive


"The poor"? Who are these otherworldly people you refer to as some strange species far removed from your experience? And how marvellous to know that you can be of such help to the "ignorant". I believe the phrase you are looking for is "I'm alright, Jack." Keith
You seem to think all the library personnel are qualified librarians - with a degree in that field. It is more often the case that a single qualified Librarian is in charge of managing more than one branch, and the staff who do the daily duties of managing a branch are only library assistants, with varying education achievements, mostly on the lower wage rates in the pay scale. Many libraries now run on minimum staffing levels with supply staff brought in to cover sickness or holiday leave so that the library can remain open. Supply staff are only paid for the actual hours they work - no other benefits. Many libraries already operate as community centres, where they assist in all manner of enquiries; family research, council business, job search applicants - sent by the job centres who do not assist people with online job, debt enquiries and advice sessions are just a few examples. Staff also assist with computer facilities through the People’s Network, for those who may have special needs or do not have access to the internet in any other way. Baby groups, educational groups, home teaching, after school clubs, reading groups, and all kinds of other groups make use of the facilities. Local Councillors also hold their monthly surgeries in the buildings. Libraries are already so much more than books, but books in various forms are a part of that service. Libraries are already a ‘first stop’ community resource, a hub that provides assistance, advice, information and learning to all those who make use of it, and it would be greatly missed by every community - including the one you live in! Without these resources, there would be a decline in the social structure of communities who would not have another source for such information and support. Dispensing these services among other groups would not be cost effective or practical. (Schools do not have libraries enough for the public to use, and do not want the public wandering through their buildings.) Nor would providing free internet to the poor (which would need monitoring, means testing, maintaining of hardware etc.) be cost effective. Far better to keep the facilities together where they are managed, monitored and maintained for many users, than to filter them out to a few individuals. Once libraries are lost, it would be almost impossible to rebuild the community info-structure that has developed over many years to exist through one communal building, bringing so many groups and services together in one place again, with access for everyone. Do consider the effect of what you propose when you suggest society no longer needs libraries. It requires you to fully understand the services our libraries perform before you can state without displaying your ignorance, that all libraries should be closed.
RDN’s reply
Dear JG, Thanks for reminding me that many librarians are not over-paid, over-educated professionals. I take your point that some libraries (I rather think not all) fulfill very wide community functions. And you suggest that books are valuable even to the wider, not specifically bookish, functions. Sorry, I stick to my point. Some libraries could become community centres and some community centres might become more about information. You will perhaps argue that some libraries are a unique concatenation of invaluable functions: doubtless those ought to be preserved. My point is that I do not think lending out books, or even holding and explaining paper reference works, makes a very good rationale for having many local, fully-staffed buildings in the modern world. The more one moves away from non-library functions to defend libraries, the more my case is made.
Michael Guillou
I can go in my local Public Library, regardless of my race, background, education, ability to use the internet, and ask any question, and get it answered, with an explanation of how it was answered, using what sources, with no bias, or discussing my business with the rest of the village. Yes, you can ask questions on the internet. And find answers. How good are the answers? I could find your entry on the wikipedia right now and log in and edit it to say you recently had a sex change. Anyone could. Say it's a medical question. Libraries get many people come in to try to understand what their doctor has told them. Yes, they can look up such things on the internet. How would they know what is a very informed and respectable site, like the Mayo Clinic, or one joe bloggs put up last week? The number of people that reply to pishing emails should tell you that they can't tell the difference between a good website and a bad. Oh, and I have never noticed a vast number of the middle classes coming in to volunteer their services to help the ignorant access online information. That I would like to see. If you wanted to volunteer your services in such a way, you would already have done so.
Peter Young
Listening to you yesterday on You and Yours reminded me of just how pompous, arrogant and patronising you can be. Every single suggestion required either a Kindle or access to the Internet. What about those who don't have a Kindle, or don't like reading on Kindle-like gizmos, don't have a computer, nor access to the Internet, too poor or too elderly to get to grips with a computer etc. I am also right-wing but at least I try and maintain a sense of proportion and realism. Rarely have I heard anyone as out of touch with reality as you. At 61 years of age, I have never hit anybody in my life but listening to your wrap-up sermon, had you proferred it down my local then I would have hit you, such was the anger that I felt at your attitude. Lastly, what's with the Richard D bit? A bit of an affectation?
RDN’s reply
Dear Peter Young, I do sound terribly cocky, I agree. What the hell: it goes with the territory of attempting to amuse. I don't the think gizmos are the answer to everything, but they will surely help deliver material to all sorts of people (not least the disabiled) with or without libraries. I think I mentioned a couple of times (in that cocky way of mine) that second hand books are very cheap on Amazon and in charity shops. These latter, and secondhand shops, could presumably really boom if the libraries weren't there as state-owned or at any rate state-mandated facilities. As to the Richard D North bit: yes it's a bore and opens me up to the charge of affectation. Actually, I did it because there's another Richard North, the one who wroks with Christopher Booker, hates the EU, the Ministries of Agriculture and of Defence. I thought a bit of differentation was needed. Sorry you want to hit me. Luckily for me, I hardly ever go into pubs since I don't drink now. But should I stray into yours, I hope you'll give a moment in which to run for the exit. r
Richard D North quote: “The more one moves away from non-library functions to defend libraries, the more my case is made." This is because you maintain a narrow minded view that insists on libraries mostly being places for book lending. As I and many others have explained, this is not the case at all. Maybe their name should be changed, but not the buildings, the staff, or the services they provide. They may be 'libraries' by name, but they are priceless by nature, whatever name they will go by. As for reference material not being best on paper... have you never needed to gather multiple reference materials to assist with writing a report? With many books spread out before you to cross reference, and others to browse for pertinent parts or quotes? It is not easy to do that on one kindle! Paper is archival, and requires no electrical power to access. Already the search engines we use daily without a second use enough electricity running the servers, to light a small town. Reference material saved to discs is already fading and may not be usable in as little as 10 years, and archivists are unsure how long such material will be accessible in that format anyway as technology moves forward so fast. Paper continues to be a steady and reliable process for archiving material for hundreds of years, and it requires no further technological advance to open a book.
Dear JG, I am perfectly content that a multi-use place called a library should exist if it can pay its way or prove that zillions of needy people come in for zillions of purposes and society gets a big payback. Ideally, those that can pay for its services, should. I imagine fewer and fewer of these customers will use it to borrow books and I frankly think that not many will use it for reference unless it's for reference they need lots of help with. That would imply that they are virtually illiterate or certainly have been very badly failed by school. I do think the digital divide is interesting and I am not sure that local libraries are where it is best addressed. I am all for addressing helping kids find quiet for homework; for the unskilled to get help with skilling-up for jobs; etc, etc. The more these are in places where there is a lot of unemployment, the more interested I am in their being community-run. (Aren't there more hands and minds for the work where people are not working?) Don't forget: my beef is that the middle class should pay for the things they use and that the poor and needy need only such help such that they will need help less. I'm a right-winger: I think the provision of services free-at-the-point-of-use for all is a bad principle. I think the fact that Britain has loads of illiterates is a failure not of civilisation but of the welfare state. I am a tad allergic to the welfare state being the solution to the problem it has created. But I do think - with IDS - that the underclass need a huge boost, and it'll cost a lot of money. But I am not sure that most libraries are where this action would now be foccussed. Where they are the very place: excellent, let's go to it. I am afraid you are on a sticky wicket when you ask me about complex resarch. It's what I do (and I do it well, if to what you may think is bad effect). It is years since I have needed a reference library (because of the web). My council gives me access, online of course, to a vast range of material and I am grateful for it, and I should pay for it but don't have to. I borrow obscure books from my council's range of major libraries: they could be sent to me more easily (for me and the library system) than my schlepping to my local library to collect them. I do think we face one large problem. The more I propose that all sorts of public places are good for book and information sharing, the more I come up against our terror of perverts as an inhibition. Good Lord, maybe we need an ID system? I am a big fan of CCTV.
Mike Payne
Dear Mr North, Thank you for a most entertaining appearance on You and Yours together with your replies to the above. I have recently retired after forty years as a Public Librarian and I have to agree that many of the skills I learnt at college - classification, cataloguing, bibliography and information retrieval - are not needed now or at least in a different form. As you probably know there is a great deal of computer use with Librarians choosing material from Suppliers' websites and in some cases an area profile is built up and stock is supplied on that basis - saving a great deal of money. However I worked for 22 years in a particularly poor area of the Black Country in the West Midlands and it was here that inter-personal skills helped a great deal. Many of our "borrowers" - or "customers" as users are known now - would come into the library for help on many matters, as they were reluctant to approach official agencies. Help could range from a pensions query to searching for a well loved poem for a funeral service. The local authority I worked for was already in the process of closing branches down for self service stations even before the financial crash. Communities where this happened are now regretting their lack of action and missing the staff and buildings that used to welcome them.

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Publication date

09 February 2011