Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Libraries and the future of reading

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.


fizzycat said...

Hear hear to everything mentioned.Very well put.

Leigh Russell said...

Hi fizzycat - glad you agree and good to hear from you my old blogbuddy.

Kim Slater said...

An interesting blog! I agree it is worrying to think that people are turning to other mediums instead of books. This is hard to understand for any avid reader. I think the sliding popularity of libraries may also be due to people's busy lives, I know I reserve titles online, then run in and run out of my local library, sandwiching it in between work, writing, reading...and the rest!

Leigh Russell said...

Good point, Kim. It's a paradox of modern life that for all the technology, which is supposed to do a lot of work for us, we are all busier than ever.

Pat said...

Nothing can ever replace the joy and comfort of a good book in my hands but things have changed and I now buy rather than borrow.

Leigh Russell said...

I think it's important to support books (and authors!!) by buying books as well as borrowing from libraries, so it's all good, Pat. As long as there is a demand for books, we'll keep on writing!

fizzycat said...

Yes hello to you too!
Our local main town library has been rehomed this year due to the original building being proposed to be redeveloped.With the current cuts I wonder if the proposed rebuild will go ahead.
Frankly, I would just fix the roof and make the place sound, its a great building dosn't need much doing to it.
Was involved in the local campaign to keep a main library open.Thankfully a local group of offices became available and the place is always busy when I visit. Long live the library I say.Writers as well.

Leigh Russell said...

And long live readers like you, fizzycat!