Recent figures show the number of active library users has dropped by over 2% while visits to library websites increased by almost 50 per cent. In 1849 William Ewart introduced a Public Libraries Bill. Conservatives objected, concerned that the middle and upper classes would pay for a service used only by the working classes. One MP announced "people have too much knowledge already: it was much easier to manage them twenty years ago; the more education people get the more difficult they are to manage.” Nevertheless the Public Libraries Act was passed in 1850.
The 19th century MP who complained that reading makes people more difficult to control had a point. Setting aside powerful arguments about the arts, culture and the advancement of knowledge, reading is essential if we are to have a population able to think for themselves. Because reading gives the individual access to all the information (and misinformation) in the world.
Over the past four centuries we have established a largely literate society in the West but literacy is losing its appeal. Today’s children feed their imaginations playing interactive games where their parents’ need for stories was supplied by books. We have the technology to move towards a largely post-literate society. All the text we need can be recorded with voice activated software for a listening audience rather than a readership. It’s easier. Already we access much of our knowledge from the television or online, and we see more stories on the small screen than the page.
But watching or listening to stories or information is a very different experience to reading. Apart from the argument about using imagination, when you’re reading you can speed up, slow down, pause to reflect, reread and refer back to an earlier passage. There is no one else’s voice to influence or interpret the meaning of the words for you. As reader you control how you read and interpret the words for yourself.
All of this makes books not only valuable but “an essential part of having and educated and literate population” as Wikipedia puts it.
So it is worrying that libraries are not mobbed by people wanting to access free books.
When Britain’s first public lending library opened in Manchester in the mid 19th century it was seen as an event so significant for literacy and democracy that Dickens visited, saying this was an institution “knowing no sect, no party and no distinction; nothing but the public want and the public good.” He would surely be turning in his grave to know that libraries are losing their popularity. If enough people lose interest in books, we risk losing our independent access to knowledge and even our ability to think for ourselves.