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Friday, 15 February 2013

An Open Letter to Terry Deary

Dear Terry Deary

You don't know me, but I am a Librarian. I have been a librarian for about eight years now, starting in the UK and now working as a library director out in Canada. I have worked in tiny rural libraries and large town libraries, and have long been shouting and advocating for my industry. You see, your comments made one thing very clear to me: Librarians are still not doing a very good job of explaining what, exactly, it is we offer and do. Oh the people who use our services regularly are aware of our function as the heart of the community, know that we offer e-resources, programs, help and advice that they would simply never be able to access anywhere else. Unfortunately we are not so good at advertising this to everyone else – we would rather spend the money on staffing and services.

So, I have decided to go through the points you have made over the last few days and give you the information that any Librarian, had you consulted them, would have been able to provide you with.

Libraries have had their day. They are a Victorian idea and we are in an electronic age.

Although the UK Public Libraries Act was passed in 1850, libraries themselves are not a Victorian idea – they are far older than that. Forms of public libraries have been in existence since antiquity, and the earliest UK public library dates from 1425. They have been a part of civilisation for as long as we have been civilised; people have always needed access to information and literature, and a truly great society has always provided that.
As for us living in an electronic age; well yes, some of us do. However access to electronic information is still dependent on factors such as internet access, the cost of devices, proprietary formats, financial status, physical location, availability of power and language ability. Many people cannot work a device without help – help they often end up getting from the local library staff. Access to electronic information is not equal, nor is it consistent. You cannot charge your e-reader in a blackout. Access is also controlled, ultimately, by the government and by the service providers. It can be taken away at any time if you are deemed to have broken the rules of usage – whatever those rules are and whoever has created them. This, by definition, is not universal access. It does not represent or provide equality for all.

They either have to change and adapt or they have to go.

We have changed, Mr Deary. I am fairly sure that the library at Alexandria did not contain DVDs or CDs. It did not have free internet access. It did not provide e-books that could be downloaded at home. It did not provide digital content for its users. It did not have coffee bars, story-times, ELL classes or workshops on finding jobs.

I know some people like them but fewer and fewer people are using them and these are straightened times.

Roughly half the residents of my town hold library cards. That is more than have memberships at the recreation centre, more than the local gym, more than those who use Community Services and more than those who attend public festivals. We are seeing a steady increase in library usage, and I live in one of the wealthiest provinces in Canada.
Why? Because our libraries are well funded when compared to the UK. In my province we are even allowed to charge for membership. More than that, we are allowed to source funding from the private sector and request charitable donations. Because of this we have the money to improve services instead of being force to cut them because of draconian policies rigidly enforced by a council that does not understand our worth.
Think about it:

Cuts to funding = cuts to services = less reasons for people to access libraries = less customers.

Libraries in the UK have less customers because they have less money to spend on services, and more importantly, on trained staff. If they were well funded and thus well managed by qualified Librarians then usage would increase.  Many well-funded libraries in the USA and Canada can prove this. The key is support, management and funding.

A lot of the gush about libraries is sentimentality.

No Mr Deary, it is not. People gush about libraries because they understand their role in a civilised society. They understand that libraries represent more than free books to read.
Most of the Western world is comprised of democracies. A democracy runs on the simple principle that we are all equal. For us to be equal, we all require equal access to information. He who controls the flow of information, controls how people think. That’s why we fight people like Rupert Murdoch gaining a monopoly on news services. In order to have a body of enlightened, informed voters we need access to all sides of the argument, not just the ones the ruling powers want us to see. Sometimes this information comes in textbooks or non-fiction, sometimes it is presented as stories and literature.

 I am sure you think that the Internet provides this service to people, yet time and again we have seen websites pulled down without warning, people prosecuted for stating their beliefs on the internet and in some countries blanket blocking of sites deemed inappropriate for the masses. The internet is not run by a magnanimous entity that ensures we all have free access to anything that we want. It is run by businesses and corporations with agendas of their own. Behind them, it is controlled by governments who have agendas of their own.

On the other side of the coin the sheer availability of the internet is part of the problem when people are searching for information. Anyone, anywhere can post anything they like on the internet and present it as fact. We regularly see witch-hunts happen online when someone posts something contentious, and the deliberate spread of misinformation is rife where any major political debate is concerned. Although books are not free of this either, most publishers will at least vet the information published under their label for integrity, no matter how controversial it proves to be.  Libraries can then make an effort to ensure all sides of the argument are fairly represented in their collections. In my case, I have to do this or risk losing my job.

Librarians are trained to assess the quality of the information they encounter, and are able to make judgement calls on the quality of the research therein. No other profession is trained to do this. No one else will help you find the truth you are after, free of charge.

The book is old technology and we have to move on.

Old does not mean defunct. Pen and paper are comparatively old technology, yet we still use them alongside our laptops and tablets. Print books and E-books can happily co-exist, with most readers flitting between various formats depending on their situation, their preferences and the availability of the text they are after. I for one tend to borrow e-books from the library, but buy books from my local store to go on my bookshelves.

This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that.

Compulsory schooling in the UK ends at 16. Where do you go if you want to learn about books and literature after you leave, or do you feel that if people have not absorbed every published book by their mid-teens then they do not deserve anything else? What about works published after they hit adulthood – are they to be denied those as well?

Compulsory schooling in the UK is determined by the government, who set the curriculum. This means they get to say what children learn, what books they read and what they should learn from them. Without libraries and Librarians, who exactly is going to show these children and teenagers the wealth of literature and books out there? Why would they take a chance on a new author? Why would they read anything that wasn’t on a set list given to them by a teacher?  Why would a child, or their parents for that matter, take a risk and buy a book on a topic not covered by the curriculum? You underestimate the number of people out there who discovered a new author, a new genre or a whole new subject of interest thanks to a member of staff at a library taking the time to chat to a family and say “here, I think you might like this.”

In 2012, less than 60% of those children in compulsory education left with 5 GCSEs grade A*-C. Many will not make it to any further education courses. If any of those children decide, a few years later, that they would like to improve their literacy and expand their minds, where would they go? Compulsory education failed them, and they cannot go back. They are unlikely to have large sums of disposable income, Mr Deary. Do they not deserve to access literature, information and knowledge? Do they not deserve the help and guidance of a trained information professional to help them access appropriate resources?

Add to that the fact that 5.1 million adults in the UK cannot read at the levels expected of your average 11 year old, according to the Literacy Trust. How do expect them to improve their skills and access information if there is no institution there to serve them, no person there to guide them or help them find appropriate materials? More than once I have had to help an engaging, intelligent adult fill out a form, find a book for their child or explain a document to them because they could not adequately read or write. Please explain to me where you expect these people to go for the help they receive from me?

The libraries are doing nothing for the book industry. They give nothing back, whereas bookshops are selling the book, and the author and the publisher get paid, which is as it should be.

And yet a recent study by Booknet Canada shows that almost 60% of book buyers have visited the library in the last 12 months. One of the main reasons cited for the purchase of books was that they had enjoyed that title when they borrowed it from the library – particularly when buying books for children or grandchildren. Since 55% of all books purchased as gifts are for children, perhaps you owe a great number of your sales to the legitimately purchased copy of your book borrowed from the library.

Anecdotally speaking, I can tell you that many of my customers use the library to test-drive an author they would not otherwise consider buying. Why? Books cost money, and people will always stick to trusted names if their budget is limited. Recently I introduced a Romance fan to a writer called Gena Showalter. A couple of months later she told me that she has bought every book in that author’s latest series, and could I recommend something else for her to read while she waited for the next book to be published? Ms Showalter got paid, the bookstore got paid and I got a happy customer. An all around win, wouldn't you say?

Another fact for you. There are roughly 22,000 public libraries spread between the USA, Canada and the UK. Now think about every single one of those libraries buying at least one copy of every one of your books in print. There is no evidence that a book borrowed from a library equals a lost sale. Quite the opposite, in fact. You are effectively complaining that we buy your books, encourage people to read them, and if those people love your books we encourage people to buy them.

Librarians are lovely people and libraries are lovely places,

Yes we are, thank you very much. Don’t you think the world needs more lovely places?

 but they are damaging the book industry.

No, they are not. There is no evidence for this at all.

They are putting bookshops out of business, and I'm afraid we have to look at what place they have in the 21st century

If this were true, Mr Deary, bookshops would never have existed in the first place. As you yourself point out, the UK Public Library Act was passed in 1850, although lending libraries have existed much longer. How are libraries damaging the book industry if they managed to co-exist for hundreds of years?  Suely bookshops would have disappeared by 1900 if this were the case?

Bookshops are being put out of business by aggressive marketing and sales from online retailers – you know, the people you think should replace public libraries. I am 100% certain that any bookstore manager or owner you ask would far rather triple the number of public libraries in operation that see Amazon continue running at its current pace. Other than the owners of Amazon, of course. They would just laugh at you if you suggested libraries were a threat to them.

What other entertainment do we expect to get for free?

Sometimes I borrow films and music from the library (free), or I borrow them from friends (free). Some of my favourite bands put up their music on the internet for free. I watch a lot of music videos on Youtube (free). I downloaded it (free). Sometimes I'll catch my favourite shows online (free) and I also listen to the radio a lot (free). I like to attend local festivals (free) and outdoor concerts (free) whenever they are on. I go to the museum (free) and art gallery (free). I visit the local parks (free) and spend time in the playground with my children (also free).

Books are part of the entertainment industry

Some books are, Mr Deary. Personally I would not call Advanced Mathematics Volume X entertaining, nor would I put the Oxford English Dictionary up there on my list of things to do when bored. Textbooks, collector’s guides, academic non-fiction, how-to guides,  and repair manuals all have a home in our library and are all popular with customers.  They are not used for entertainment, but for reference and for help. They are borrowed so people can learn new skills and aspire to achieve greater things in their lives.

We also have an extensive dual language collection. These are books and guides to help those people who have moved to this country, but whose English may need improving. Trust me, the people borrowing this material are not doing so for entertainment, although we try to get the most interesting materials for them that we can. They are using these books to improve their skills, and thus improve their lives.

I never attacked libraries

Yes you did, Mr Deary. You said that “Libraries have had their day. They are a Victorian idea and we are in an electronic age”, that “they are damaging the book industry” and “fewer and fewer people are using them”. These would be attacks on libraries.

 I said we need to think about people’s access to literature.

That is a major part of what Librarians think about. That’s why we have to manage our spaces to include not just literature but media, community space and programming room. The one group of people who really, really think about people’s access to literature are LIBRARIANS. We think about it just as much as we think about access to information, intellectual freedom, whether we can justify the expense of replacing our computers and whether we should allocate our collections budget to the latest best sellers or replacing some much loved classics.

I don’t see poor people in libraries, I see middle class people with their arms stuffed like looters.

Really, Mr Deary? This statement is rather baffling to me. How can you tell if someone is poor or middle class just by looking at them? I have been both of these things, and I’m fairly certain that I didn’t walk around with a billboard announcing my yearly earnings or financial position. If I’m honest, I was probably better dressed when I was poor, but I didn’t have kids then.  I had  a Master’s degree when I was poor, too. In fact the degree was part of what caused my financial distress. I doubt you could have guessed that by looking at me.

My library is located in a relatively wealthy community in a very wealthy province in a wealthy country. People of all backgrounds use our facility, and I honestly could not tell you which patrons where in which economic strata based on their appearance, usage, intellect, age, gender, race or possessions. I was once told that you can judge a person by their shoes, but since one of the wealthiest people I have ever met clomps around in a battered pair of sneakers I am not convinced of this.

However, let us pretend that you are correct and the majority of users are middle class. The thing is, Mr Deary, libraries are for everyone, not just the poor. The middle class and the super wealthy have just as much right to use the library as the poorest of the poor. It does not mean that they do not need the library. Did you know that middle class kids in Canada are the most at-risk of falling behind with early literacy? Did you know that middle class families don’t always have a disposable income, either? Did you think that maybe some middle class people have lost their jobs and are now on the breadline, in fact rendering them “poor”? Did you think that some poor people might use the library not for the books, but for the courses, help and social interaction they get there instead? What makes you think that the middle class have any better access to information than the poor do?

To conclude, Mr Deary, libraries are not just about literature and books. Sure, this is a fundamental part of the service we offer, but we are so much more than that. We represent the best of civilisation – a civilisation that believes everyone, regardless of their background, has a right to access information and ideas. We believe in sharing, in inclusiveness, in not leaving anyone behind. We are not just here to give children a boost with their literacy or let those who cannot afford books borrow them; we are here to help anyone who wants to explore ideas and worlds that would not otherwise be accessible to them. We are here to guide people to things they might like – and not to judge them for those tastes. We are here to build strong community ties and links, to allow different people to interact in a neutral setting, when they might not otherwise meet. We represent democratic ideals and love for the arts. We are a place for ideas, for critical thinking, for fun and for enjoyment.

To steal the tagline from my own library, Mr Deary, you need to “Think Outside The Books”. Libraries are worth so much more than you realise, and it pains me to see people as educated and successful as yourself happy to watch such a shining institution condemned to obscurity because you have not properly researched the benefits a library brings to the community it serves.

Kindest regards,

Gemma Noon


scannercalypte said...

Bravo! Absolutely, stonkingly bravo again and again!!

Karen said...

Very well said! I work in a library and comments like Mr Dreary's make me so mad :o(

Alison Runham said...

Well there are a million and one things I could comment on here, but what leapt out at me is his comment: 'This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that.' Such naivety leaves me speechless and simultaneously convinced that Terry Deary knows nothing about 'compulsory schooling'. Try talking to someone who has worked in compulsory schooling, Terry (me, for a start), and we can inform you about the incredible failure of compulsory schooling to introduce a large portion of children to literature. If that was all that was required, we wouldn't have pitiful, pitiable, and rapidly decreasing literacy levels in the UK. Now would we?

Well said, Gemma! :D

Rena George said...

Excellent post, Gemma, and eloquently said. It's ridiculous for anyone to suggest that public libraries are a thing of the past. THEY HAVE NOT HAD THEIR DAY. The two libraries we have in our small Yorkshire town are thriving, vibrant parts of the community, with as many children and young people using the library as older borrowers.
It's difficult to understand where Terry Deary is coming from.
Libraries do not undermine the work of authors. They positively promote and encourage reading.
If best selling authors such as Lee Child, Jacqueline Wilson and Kate Moss support public libraries, they must be doing something right. Rx

Patsy said...

We're suffering from cuts to the library service in the UK too. Trouble is, libraries are for ordinary people, poor people, students, children ... they don't make money for politicians and their friends and they don't win votes.