Earlier this week, Terry Deary, author of the popular (in the UK) Horrible Histories series, started quite the shit-storm when he declared that libraries “have been around too long” and are “no longer relevant”, among other things. Apparently Deary just wants people to buy his books instead of getting them for free. Never mind the fact that he also says library use is declining in the UK, which would seem to lessen the impact on his bottom line.
First off, something I wasn’t aware of is the fact that UK authors are paid a small fee every time one of their books is checked out from a UK library, with the total amount capped at £6,600 annually. That sounds like an awesome idea that I wish was feasible to implement in the US. I have a feeling that it wouldn’t fit into library budgets, however. Even still, that payment wasn’t enough for Deary, who feels entitled to the sales he thinks he would have made if those were books bought instead of checked out.
Deary’s rant, focusing as it does on his need to get paid, manages to come off as petulant, greedy and classist to boot. In one gem of a quote, he declares that “this is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature” because I guess poverty is no longer a worldwide epidemic, right? Poor people who want to read should just skip a meal and pay for books instead, and when physical books go the way of the buffalo, they should start paying for e-readers and internet access too. (But that’s a whole other issue.)
Never mind the fact that books are more than just commerce. A good book is food for the soul, and libraries make readers. Readers buy books. Just because it’s possible to get books for free from the library doesn’t mean people stop buying books as well, and it never has. I’ve always got a good half-dozen books checked out from the library, but I still spend $50-$100 a month on new and used books.
Also, it’s a fallacy to assume that if libraries went away that people would buy as many books as they borrowed. I buy a lot of books as it is, but I’d probably have to double or triple my budget to buy as many books as I check out from the library. It’s just not going to happen. It’s the same fallacy record labels use to claim that every pirated mp3 equates to a “lost sale”. When people can get things for free – from the library or by piracy – they tend to pick up more than they would ever buy.
Of course, libraries are about more than “free books”. They’re one of the few public spaces where you can sit and work or read and use the wifi without having to buy a cup of coffee. They provide easy access to computers and the internet for people who wouldn’t have access otherwise. They offer community events, meeting places, educational programs and more. Also, librarians do more than shelve books. They’re skilled researchers, talented educators, and passionate evangelists for great books. Every librarian I’ve ever met is a huge book-lover, and you don’t want to get on a book-lover’s bad side.
Ultimately, you have to wonder what exactly Deary was thinking when he decided to air his complaint. I suppose he felt like an iconoclast declaring a subversive opinion, but mostly he just came off like an avaricious, tone-deaf idiot. It’s bad enough that bookstores are closing by the dozens; if libraries started closing down at the same rate, I’d consider us lost as a species.
To paraphrase John Waters: “If you go home with someone, and they don’t like libraries, don’t fuck ’em!”