On Monday night BBC1’s The One Show screened an interesting report on the closure of a library in Barnet, North London. As most people are aware this is far from the first local library to close and many people are heralding library closures as being symptomatic of our times and the loss of literacy among our children.
But the people of Barnet are fighting back with a “community library” run by the local people and which relies on the honesty of the clientele to return the books (much like any other library I would have thought). But does the closure of libraries really symbolise a lost love of reading?
As a child I spent many hours in my local library (I just performed a quick Google search and yes, it is still open!) and our weekly trip to town on a Saturday always ended in a visit to the main branch of the Preston library service. As an 8-year old I completed the reading challenge run by our library service in which you had to read books from the list of eligible titles and then answer questions posed by a librarian to check you had read the whole thing. Completing the challenge meant reading over a hundred books and the usual starting age was eight. So maybe I spent more time than most in a library as a child but even my usage of the service has tailed off.
I feel that this is not due to a lost love of reading (although my prolific habit was put on hold while I was at university) but mostly due to the widespread availability of cheap books and maybe slightly to a tendency towards laziness. Sites like Amazon make it very easy to quickly find the book you’re after without having to trawl through multiple shelves and titles which hold no interest (this is the laziness factor) but are also cheaper than most high street stores. In addition to this in London I live very close to a well-stocked branch of Oxfam and another charity shop which have provided many of my reading choices as well as taking the titles I didn’t enjoy off my hands (guess where my Austen ended up?!).
Annnd I work close to two shops on Euston Road who sell all of their books for £2. Two pounds!! So I don’t often feel the need to visit a library and as a result I have made very little use of my nearest service.
The one thing I haven’t mentioned which is probably also having an effect on our library services is the rise of e-readers such as the Kindle. These machines may negate the need for printed literature which I agree can be heavy and bulky to carry around but I for one will never use one however many free titles it comes with. I like the variability of books – the different sizes, colours and fonts and there is nothing as exciting to me as getting a new book and holding it in your hands waiting for the story to unfold. To me an e-reader lacks soul and really does detract from the reading experience.
But let’s end this on a real positive: Book Swaps for London is a campaign which is aiming to establish a book sharing scheme across London by providing shelves in tube and train stations where travellers can pick up a free book and drop off any they’ve finished with. A library service for the commuter network if you will.
The team currently have seven swaps up and running and are working towards London domination. So if this sort of scheme can flourish are we really becoming a nation of illiterates? I certainly hope not and I like to think that although the demise of the library is very sad it may not necessarily be the death knell we all think it is.