Public libraries haven’t existed for that long. They began opening in the 17th century, though seldom let you borrow books and were not ‘public’ in the modern, democratic sense. Well into the 19th century Britain had only one open, free library, Chetham Library in Manchester, which today claims to be the ‘the oldest public library in the English-speaking world’.
In the latter half the 19th century, genuinely public libraries began opening across Britain. This new type of library was closer to our understanding of the word: free to all members of the public who passed through its doors. They were one of the great Enlightenment projects. It was the desire, as expressed by Kant in his essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’, to give everyone the freedom to learn and use their reason and thus to enter an enlightened age.
However, this project only lasted about 150 years. Over the last decade, library use in Britain has fallen by 30% and nearly 350 libraries have shut since 2010, with many more soon to follow. It is undoubtedly the end for libraries. For a time, volunteers will keep them afloat, but only the smallest and least demanding of libraries can survive on volunteers alone.
Some argue this decline is a period of transition to the age of Information Technology. It’s true that if somebody wants to know something particular, or wants to keep track of the news, we live in no better age. But information isn’t the same as enlightenment. Libraries never just dealt in information; they dealt primarily with books. Books are part of culture, they are laborious compositions of facts and opinions and imagination that improve our understanding of the world. What we are seeing today is an increase of information, but a decline in books and learning.
It is not that this is a period of transition, then, but a period of displacement. People have access to an infinite wealth of information, but they only ever receive in it snippets mostly isolated from wider context and culture. Indeed, everyone has easy access to great works, but for some reason few choose to explore them. (And neither am I entirely innocent here.) The same phenomenon is evident with classical music: why is it when classical music has never been more accessible, has it seemingly reached peak levels of unpopularity?
Part of this is education. I couldn’t quote you a line of Shakespeare, but if I ask my mother to do so, she could automatically recite parts of Macbeth, despite having left school at 16. I know she didn’t enjoy learning it, but she’s nevertheless at a great cultural advantage for knowing it.
This is probably why libraries’ attempts to attract people has been so unsuccessful; culture has changed, and ‘traditional’ reading has been displaced by modern media. Mobile libraries are one such attempt, and have seen a sharp decline. The mobile library vans go round the county with an on-board selection of books and media, and will deliver requests to you. I occasionally see them around here still, especially in the poorer neighbourhoods. But in most areas they have long disappeared.
Libraries do also offer ebook lending, but this is not an especially popular service either. The big issue with ebook lending is that it’s only compatible with tablets and not e-readers. We see Amazon instead offering its own subscription-only lending service for the Kindle e-reader, a step back into the 18th century when many libraries were not open and free to the public but rather subscription-based.
And when it comes to technology moreover, libraries are caricatures of themselves. The search engine system is cumbersome and uninviting to the public, looking about as complex as a university library system. Spydus, while sounding like a computer virus, is actually just a dull, aesthetically-Soviet piece of computer software that every library I’ve come across uses. Here is my search result page for for ‘Charles Dickens’:
If you click on an item, the overwhelming level of technical detail beats even university libraries:
In light of all this, I signed up with my local library this week — and it wasn’t simple. I went onto the council site and clumsily navigated my way to the libraries section. Then I scanned the screen for the ‘join’ link. My first mistake was to start registering with the council instead of the library services. (Note the ‘Register’ link at the top and the ‘Join the library’ link at the bottom.)
I was then instructed to fill out a form with 42 fields. Most are optional, but one look at the intimating page and I immediately poured out a gin and tonic. Once done, I was taken to a confirmation page and given an account number and so on.
The next day I thought I’d log back in and browse through the library catalogue. It asked for my library catalogue number and pin. So I opened up my emails. Nothing. I checked my junk mail. Nothing. I checked my phone for text messages. Nothing. Absurdly, they gave me no confirmation email or text.
A week later a brown envelope came through the door with the address handwritten. It was the library service with my flimsy new library card and a welcome leaflet. Now finally I could log in online.
The library’s chief demographic is not like me. It will be older people, and maybe poorer people; in other words, people who would be much more confused and infuriated by the process than me. This is emblematic of the bigger problem. Libraries are institutions suffering at the hands of same processes of modernity that were their creation. People are freer than they ever were before to enjoy the the benefits of public libraries, but this freedom, contrary to Kant’s expectations, does not mean that public’s enlightenment is ‘almost inevitable’. Indeed, quite the opposite. It means the freedom to ignore, to explore other, lesser things. And it means that in a consumer-driven market society, public libraries cannot compete.