Books - buy or borrow?


I grew up on a dual carriageway. Well, next to one. This inhospitable, anonymous location precluded the usual street games and gangs of childhood, and I was often lonely. The resulting isolation led me to reading. I read anything at all: daily newspapers, piles of comics bought from jumble sales, my father’s paperbacks, every gardening, car and cookery manual in the house, Reader’s Digests, as much as I could manage from our pristine, mystifying set of Encyclopaedia Brittanicas - and whatever at all I wanted from our wonderful local library.

During my primary school years I walked the mile to that library and back again every week. It was warm, bright and endlessly captivating. It was here that I learned how to spend time alone without being lonely; how to leave my own life and enter that of a stranger; and - since repetition is what connects young synapses - how to shape language and to spell. I regularly strayed into Adult Fiction, full of chunky promise and alluring titles like The Carpetbaggers, They Do It With Mirrors, Up The Down Staircase. The librarian stamped my choices out at the exit without a word. I assumed this was in deference to the QUIET! sign but perhaps he just didn’t want to argue the case against a nine year-old girl taking Harold Robbins to bed.

In the intervening years, during which a salary gave me purchasing power, I used libraries less and less. Apart from some short, intensive bursts of attendance during degree studies, I gradually moved over to high street, specialist and iconic bookshops. I loved the eccentric Foyles, the ‘innovative’ Borders (where else could you sit in comfort and read a book before deciding to take it home, apart from…a library?), the flagship Waterstones with the curvy windows. Then a decade ago, Amazon started to drip the syrup of its deals and deliveries straight into my bloodstream and I became hooked on Prime.

I did sigh over all those post-2008 library closures, and wore a grim face on behalf of the people who still wanted and needed free access to books, but I suffered little personal grief. It was hard to understand (because I didn’t really try) what the loss of librarians would mean - aren’t we all search engine experts these days? Then last year I downsized from a house to a flat. I had to reduce my book hoard by around a thousand and swear off further accumulation. So to help reduce my carbon footprint and live perpetually like the modernhouse.com photographer is due any minute, I returned to the world of municipal book-lending.

At ten on a Saturday morning, my local library had been open for an hour and was completely empty. It was still empty an hour later after I’d browsed through its entire collection, and had mourned the loss of what must have once been the upstairs reference floor. This was a sunny and amenable space that had been emptied of books and was now a meeting area for community groups. Downstairs was dark, shabby and poorly stocked with mostly populist thrillers and romances (summer fodder, more than five years old), a large cookery section, minimal non-fiction (outmoded political science and military studies), and a few football and celebrity autobiographies. The range was uninspiring, drab, out-of-date. I did wonder if the titles on offer were simply a reflection of the local readership (more retirees per inch than most towns). The place certainly smacked of death.

At home, I accessed the library’s archive online and tried using the Booker Prize long lists 2016-19 as an easy filter. Not one of the printed versions were available. I did have the option of requesting a transfer from another library within the county, but this required a fee and, I was warned, could take up to fourteen weeks. Perhaps the library’s digital range would offer more immediate access? I leapt into e-books several years ago, soon after they became available, but had so many whinges that I returned to paper. I didn’t like the screen’s smooth surface, the fake page turn, the layout, the physical edge of the tablet, the conflicting blankness and disturbance of screen reading. But in order to live minimally I would have to accept all these features. Could it be any worse than when I made myself eat olives in order to live a normal life while working in Spain?

The e-library did offer a much wider choice of reading material but - astonishingly - another queue system. I’m guessing this has something to do with limited server bandwidth and tight public finances, but in the same way that I’m not willing to wait six months to stream last year’s Oscar-winning films, I’d like to read the closing novel in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy soon after publication - which means buying it. The problem is that there are so many of us who would rather not wait, local authorities have clocked the resulting drop in demand and are reducing direct funding for these ‘non-care’ services year on year. Cue wizened stock and inadequate servers.

Who is looking into this? One government-appointed taskforce brought together the BBC, The British Library, The Arts Council, DCMS, Public Health England, The Society of Chief Librarians and The Reading Agency. Their report, Libraries Deliver: Ambition for Public Libraries in England 2016 to 2021 outlines future success as: the diversification of library users; the redefining of libraries as local creative hubs; and the provision of cultural experiences and activities (so that’s where the library’s top floor went). A rather scary, small paragraph on alternative finance models suggests that philanthropists, businesses, social impact bonds and community shares are the future. Why is this OK for library services and not for say, the fire service? Must be hundreds of local sponsors out there who’d love to get their message on a big red truck.

I found nothing specific in the report on content currency nor speed of access. And not nearly enough on proposed methods of enticing sporadic or new readers to join a library. We know that children, the elderly and the unemployed are the highest users but what about those who perceive libraries simply as places for - children, the elderly and the unemployed? Cutting a path through the marshmallow of YouTube influencers, media opinion and celebrity views will require some spectacularly well-known British voices. The report’s call for “high-profile library champions” had better not be councillors or community leaders. Maybe try asking John Boyega/Nadiya Hussein/Little Mix for a quote instead? Libraries, especially the more remote ones, could do with a bit of populist stardom on their side if they are to belong to modern culture again.

People with money do not covet a library card. Nor people with ample space, who are happily amassing their own libraries. People with a green conscience who are busy shunning plastics/cars/face scrubs are already avid screen readers, wise to the low-impact, low-cost buys available. Libraries need to be sold back to us as worthy of our footfall (fingerfall?). The service no longer needs to exist as a physical temple to learning, but it does need a wide and fast digital offer if it is to compete for readers and survive. Remaining an active e-library user is one way for me to help keep the numbers up, though I expect I will still get huffy about the 'Hold' delay. A quick search reveals several self-help books on developing hard-core patience - can I wait long enough to borrow one?