Judging by the cover
It’s generally a safe expectation that if you publish a piece of writing that makes any notable impression at all, the point at which it gains notoriety is long after the flesh has rotted from your bones and become a greasy smear across the mouldering stuffing of your coffin.
It’s difficult to read in loud spaces and quiet ones can be in short supply. As much as I enjoy a chaotic bombardment of noise to scrape away the dead skin, attempting to concentrate in distracting environments is an infuriating, often fruitless, task. In contradiction to my frantic reverie amidst a sonic assault, I find I work best in more or less total silence. From one extreme to the other, I suppose.
For the aspirational word-mongers with their teeth clamped around the speculative spine of their to-be-published novels, well aware that in order to force your words into the slavering eye sockets of a thirsting audience you need said audience in the first place. In these days of fiscal paucity, people, if they have money at all, are less willing to part with it that ever before. Who can blame them? Achieving that goal of furiously masturbating with fistfuls of fresh currency is generally not built on the back of lending – but building an audience can be, and word of mouth is some of the most effective and cheap marketing you will ever have.
All this in mind, a library seems to constitute some sort of literary pilgrimage site. It’s a fair assumption that a person who makes the mistake of calling themselves a writer enjoys the odd book. Writers, outside of Rowling and a couple of others, generally aren’t known for their financial abundance. Outside of the occasional screaming toddler or the one bloke desperately trying to access porn at the computers with his dick in his hand, libraries offer a sustained quiet environment in which to access free books or do some thinking, note making, or (gasp) actual writing. Then, once you’ve actually written something, they’re potentially willing dispensaries for your words into the salivating tooth-filled pupils of the public.
Putting the book-keepers down
And yet it’s been a long time since I last went into a library near me. Do library cards still exist? That’s a sad question to ask. I continually feel that I’m somehow doing the broader book-loving community some kind of disservice because of this. As a vomiter of words and ink, it almost seems to be expected of me to spend a certain amount of my life outside of libraries waving some kind of banner, and possibly a heavy object, in their defence. When Neil Gaiman is extolling the virtues of the library, famously owning his own personal one, I am obligated agree with him. Not merely because his words carry somewhat more weight than my own, and he’s probably put more thought into it over the years than I have, but because I do genuinely support libraries as a public institution. I tend to do so under my breath, however, for is it not contradictory, if not hypocritical, to on the one hand champion a service for which the public pays taxes, while also wholesale failing to make use of it myself? No. Regardless, I feel a compulsion to justify my absence.
I don’t have the physical need to visit a library. Between a couple of shelves of paper- and hard-backs, and my kindle, I currently own a little shy of 200 books that I haven’t read yet. That number is rising. I also, selfishly, have a great need to own the books I read. Perhaps a somewhat privileged position to be able to take, but I just enjoy possessing everything within my grasp. Where books are concerned, it’s mine and I’m not sharing. No, I don’t want to give it back.
Where digital books are concerned, it’s flatly faster for me to buy and download an ebook,than it is for me to go to a library, locate a book, and come back with it. This is all assuming that my nearest local library even has the book in the first place and there’s a hard limit on the physical possibility of that being the case. There is, however, the strong probability of it being available on an ebook store somewhere. The result is that I know that in the time it would take me to get ready to go to the library, I can probably get what I want. Like many, I prefer my books physical. Is it the weight? The smell? The unadulterated joy of being away from a screen for a couple of hours before my eyeballs rebel and stump-fuck my brain into lumpy sludge against the back of my skull? None can say. I do know that it’s not enough of a lure to outweigh that behemoth of an economy defining force: Convenience. I’m aware that I can go to my local library and, should they not have what I’m looking for, they can probably get it in for me. And that’s fucking awesome. It does not, however, outside of specific instances, align with my particular set of priorities. I don’t think I’m alone in that.
I used to go to libraries and take out large numbers of books as a child. A little later on, around the time I discovered the Internet, back when it was still expensive to get a basic connection and it interrupted the phone lines, I discovered that libraries had Internet access. I had a friend who had discovered dumb flash games at the same point and we made a habit of spending a lot of time in libraries because of the free Internet. Seems vaguely a shame, in retrospect, to use a library as a free temporary Internet cafe, but what the hell.
I read Akira thanks to library access. I don’t know if that’s sad, but on the other hands those graphic novels are somewhat more dense than the 1988 animation. You could easily fit the entire film inside about half of the first book, and the whole series comes in six chunky volumes. Those ain’t cheap – it’s about £100 for the lot, and if you’re pushed to for shelf space then I’ve got bad news. If you’re interested in reading them, a library probably has you covered.
I also spent a lot of time as a teenager bunking A-levels in libraries. When I wasn’t roaming the streets, I’d read. It killed the hours, and nobody was going to ask questions to the silent kid in a hoody, scowling at whatever was in his hands, so that’s where I went. I know, I was real hardcore… I can’t even remember what I read, but I assume I got through something with all the time there.
So what, is the take away from this that technological progress is making the library obsolete? No. I’m not an authority on the subject and it’s pretty clear I’m coming at it from a very specific position, so this entire post isn’t meant as a particularly objective assessment. That being said, my various email notifications and information feeds give me a semi-regular supply of articles written by librarians, and they routinely subvert the unfortunate expectation that a library is merely a big room filled with assorted books and old people attempting to make reverse-charge calls to the other side of the world using a decades-old printer. If it isn’t clear by this point, I personally do use libraries pretty much as dispensaries of literature and recyclable bags, but that’s a pretty narrow view, and I’m no longer necessarily part of the demographic who directly needs libraries.
Take my first assertion that I tend to buy everything: That’s nice if you have the specific circumstances that allow for that to be the case. For a start, I’m just framing this in terms of easily accessible literature/media. Buying endless numbers of print books is really expensive – I certainly can’t do it even in light of the above claim. Ereaders and tablets can be pretty expensive too, so if you don’t have the ability to buy one, for instance if you’re choosing between food and books, a situation that seems to be increasingly common as we slouch into the festering dystopia of the 21st century, then you’re going to choose food and get your books from a library. You filthy casual.
Academia is massively reliant on libraries. Most of my own research is accessible, primary and secondary sources are usually mass print books, news articles, other similar publicly available media. For the academic crowd, and in the case of more specific subjects, that isn’t a thing. Those books can get expensive. Unless you are, or have connections to, an oil baron or some kind of digital mogul, you’re not buying a lot of your sources. Journal subscriptions are expensive, the Access to Research website tells me that participating libraries across the UK have free access to 15 million articles. Not bad. I’m probably underestimating the amount libraries get done with their budgets. After that, there’s simply the fact that academic text books can easily cost in the hundreds to thousands of pounds. Like I said, get drilling.
How about the Internet? Not everybody has a computer. The elderly, for instance, in an increasingly digital world can find themselves reliant on libraries, and their librarians taking time out of all of the other library jobs, to help them with the baffling unfamiliarities of modern technology.
My presumption is that the more the world becomes digitised, the role of the library will become increasingly distinct in the public psyche from its current general preconception. That could be to focused on more specialised needs to account for a demand for high-value or less accessible texts and documents, specific facilities, etc. Alternatively, the opposite direction: to broaden in scope and focus more towards the community aspects and services that many of them currently offer – similar to the way bookshops now incorporate coffee shops and cafes into their spaces.
Of course, the actual librarians of the world could give you a far more knowledgeable and coherent response on their current trajectories. It’s known that library use has fallen over the past decade and a half, at least in the UK, but I assume those numbers reflect, in part, some of the reasons I don’t go to them much despite recognising their benefit to society. Despite my connections to literature, both academic and consumer, and the creation and consumption thereof, I don’t see myself as part of a problem. Those dwindling numbers aren’t necessarily the result of there being fewer readers in the world or an advancing ice age for “intellectual” pursuits or whatever. This is merely the inevitability of change. With the continued march of time, the evolution of consumer behaviour and patterns of population functionality, the library is not heading for obsolescence. Rather, the points at which it connects to the people it benefits, alongside our own perceptions and connections, are just undergoing the same changes and adaptations that we see all around us.