Oh Deary

Terry Deary’s views on public libraries made alarming reading this week. Others have replied far more cogently than I could, so if you want a proper response, Julia Donaldson’s article in the Guardian is a good place to start.

Still, if Deary’s comments re-ignite the debate about public libraries, it won’t be a bad thing. We need to continue that debate while there is still a service to discuss. What we’re currently suffering is a haphazard dismantling of a fragmented service as small local battles are fought – and often lost – all over the country.

I worked in a public library for twelve years. I’ve seen the good that libraries do. If you can afford to buy all your books and have internet access, maybe you don’t need to go to one, but for goodness’ sake, why wouldn’t you? Libraries have far more books than most of us could ever afford, they’re (usually) warm, they’re friendly and safe, and they’re full of people who love to read! What’s not to like? (And yes, I know bookshops used to offer most of this. If you still have one that does, you’re very lucky.)

Conversely if you have no money of your own to buy reading material – and many people, especially children, haven’t – where else can you go? Even 50p at a charity shop is beyond some budgets. “The Internet!” is not an answer if you’re six years old, you have several brothers and sisters and everybody wants the computer at once.

Nobody’s saying the Library service doesn’t need to change in the light of the current upheaval in the book trade. But we only got to where we are by a long struggle. Abandoning all that hard-won ground now would be a dreadful mistake.

A while ago I did some digging around to find out the story of just one local library in my area. Some of the arguments may sound familiar:


The Public Libraries Act gives boroughs the power to open free public libraries


(No rush, as you see) –  a letter in the local paper gives twenty reasons why a library would be a Good Thing, including, “Because for young people of both sexes a Public Library affords some place to which they can go, instead of loitering aimlessly about the public streets.”


The Council vote against a Public Library, despite popular support which claims that, “The poor people here are very fond of reading,” and, “The people of this town… have been unfairly handicapped in the pursuit of knowledge by the absence of such an institution.”

The local papers are divided:

“The speeches of the members proved… that many of them know nothing at all about the question.”

“The decision was a wise one… while there were so many costly necessities, in the shape of loans for drainage, water supply and street improvements looming.”

“The public will always clamour for anything they can see a chance of getting for nothing.”


Mr Carnegie (founder of the Carnegie Trust) offers £3000 towards the cost of a library. This sparks a public meeting, at which –

“Mr Pile said they should put every opportunity of improvement in the way of the young men of the town.”


“Mr Dadds said that public libraries were a failure nearly everywhere.”

“Hear, Hear!”

“What did they read in these libraries?”

“Rubbish!” came the reply.

(There may be something in this. For a fee, the local subscription libraries were offering titles like, “Miranda of the Balcony,” “Maid with the Goggles,” “Further Adventures of Captain Kettle,” “Iris the Avenger,” and “Mrs Erricker’s Reputation”.)


The Great War interrupts everything,


There is a hold-up acquiring the land. The Carnegie Trustees want to see some action.


A local campaigner points out that “no one with a leaning towards culture would oppose a free library” and finally…


Hooray! The Library opens, after forty-one years of campaigning.

It’s still open now.

Long may it remain.

8 thoughts on “Oh Deary

  1. I was interested to read Deary’s comments because it didn’t previously occur to me that an author might take that view of libraries. However, I see that there is some justice in it. Libraries publicize an author’s work and bring him more readers; but they bring him little income directly. Whether the publicity effect outweighs the low-income effect is a moot point, and at least for some authors it probably doesn’t.

    For myself, I was fond of libraries when I was young and lacked money to buy books. Later, when I had a bit of cash, I preferred to buy books, and visited libraries more rarely. Then I moved abroad, the libraries no longer had books in English, and I stopped using them altogether.

    I think I’m a neutral in this fight. I have a residual affection for libraries, but I no longer use them myself, and in this digital age it seems time to re-examine the arguments for them, and for how they’re funded; because libraries can be funded in different ways.

    Fortunately for me, I don’t need to go into all this myself, because I have no power to influence any decisions that may be made on the subject.

  2. Until this debate I’d also never thought about the possible adverse effect of libraries on the income of authors. In fact I’d assumed governments and councils might be good customers, buying multiple copies of books to stock their libraries.
    While I understood the abstract logic of Deary’s argument, it’s heartening to hear that you as an author support public libraries. My parents are both retired and also voracious readers who order six or seven books a week between them. When I visit the library for them I see a large proportion of children, ethnic minorities, people who look a bit down on their luck, and older folk. So there is obviously a broad benefit being derived by the community, as well as personal enjoyment and development.

  3. Thanks Jonathan and Ray for reading my rant, and for the thoughtful comments. Jonathan I agree that we need to debate the role of libraries in a digital age. I’m sure that discussion is going on within and beyond the library service.

    Personally I find that the advantages of libraries for me as a borrower vastly outweigh any possible disadvantages for me as an author. I might (although I doubt it) have more money if they weren’t there – but my life, and that of the local community, would be very much poorer.

  4. Of course if one’s book is borrowed from libraries one gets a tiny fee per borrow if one’s signed up for the Public Lending thingummy. If the library stock it. And if it’s popular this can be significant.

    Sadly my library almost never have books that are what I want to read. Their poetry section is derisory. Their acquisitions lag a good six months behind publication and ordering a book (for, last time I did so, 70p) takes months. And now that they bung a lot of their paperbacks higgledy piggledy on those carousels, even if it’s actually something you want, the catalogue says they’ve got it and it’s not out on loan, it’s still a major project to find it. I don’t think my local library has been interested in *books* for a long time. The people in there are using other media; mainly the newspapers to job hunt – which is fine! It’s a shame they couldn’t continue to do books ‘properly’ as well.

    1. Ah Judi, you and I have had this debate before, usually over a glass of wine and a bowl of peanuts! It’s true that public libraries (of my acquaintance) have a very slim poetry collection – and classic literature doesn’t fare much better. I assume the budget tends to be skewed towards the sort of thing that gets regularly borrowed (popular fiction, children’s books, non-fiction) with other less in-demand material shared between several branches. I don’t expect to find what I need for research in the local library. I do expect, and get, the chance to discover new authors for free, somewhere to browse and study with no pressure, more reading than I can afford to buy, and a specialist collection of local history material that I’d never find anywhere else.

      Acquisitions and requests aren’t always slow but timing depends how popular the book is (there are queues) and what time of year you order. If the budget runs out before the financial year does, it’s bad news – and of course that’s more and more likely with cuts. On the other hand, you do eventually get to read practically any book you desire for 70p.

      There is no cheap way to run a library and nobody’s going to get everything they want because none of us wants to pay that much council tax. It’s a real shame that you can’t get ANYTHING you want, though. If any service is sliced thin enough then its value is undermined, people like you are disappointed and won’t fight so hard to preserve it anyway. Also on the one hand people are saying, “nobody will want books because we have ebooks/the internet,” and on the other they’re saying, “they haven’t got the books I want.” All of which is why we need the debate.

      I’m not a fan of carousels. Hard to stack and hard to find what you want, although great fun if you are five years old and spin them round very fast. All the books fly off and make a spectacular mess.

      Speaking of five-year olds, one function of libraries is to encourage a culture of reading, so that children grow up with books and expect to carry on using them in adult life. For people like you and I, who write, this is surely a very Good Thing.

      Finally – a library that is stuffed with people job-hunting (much of it done on Library computers now) is carrying on the tradition of the one whose history I quoted. It was expected to enable local people and the unemployed to ‘improve themselves’ and widen their opportunities. But I have to agree that if they wanted to improve by reading poetry, they’d struggle.

      1. An impassioned and completed unarguable reply, Ruth! Have we really had this conversation before? Oh dear: it must have involved more wine than was prudent on my part!!

        I was hustled off (weekly) to the local library by my library-using parents as soon as I could read and everything you say about inculcating good habits of reading, researching and personal improvement are, of course, true. It felt a bit of a betrayal when I realised, many years ago now, that libraries – or my local one anyway – no longer catered for me. This I still find a bit odd, as I am largely a popular fiction reader (the poetry apart!).

      2. Impassioned and somewhat rambling, I fear – I really must turn the computer off after midnight, shut up and go to bed. As I recall, the overconsumption of wine was mutual… Oddly, despite the fact that we had a house full of books (or perhaps that’s why) my parents never went near a public library and still don’t. So when I discovered one as a teenager, it was like being let loose in a sweetshop. I guess that may be why you feel you’ve witnessed a decline while I am still delighted to have whatever’s on offer.

        If you have the time and patience, it’s probably worth chasing the Library to get in the sort of stuff you want to read. It’s one way of spreading the word about good writing. With April and the new budget year coming up, you might even get it.

  5. My parents had one weeny shelf of books, shared with mum’s African violets. It was mainly gardening books, a school atlas*, books on Cornwall and two ancient tomes of poetry that mum won at school. So we pretty much had to go to the library – because both my parents were great readers. It’s just book ownership they didn’t seem to embrace. Just goes to show reading habits are pretty varied.

    * I have kept up the tradition of always having a school atlas handy.

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