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Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Defending Public Libraries

Public libraries that are free at the point of delivery - at least if you want to borrow books - are an important part of the sort of community I want to live in. It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that up to the age of 18 I got a large amount of my education from and in Coventry's Central Library. If you came from a home like mine where there was no culture of books or reading one of the few ways you could  get any sense of the sheer  range of what there was to know  and enjoy was by visiting the library, standing in front of the shelves, and surveying their content. I was very lucky in that my father, no great reader himself, thought it was a good idea when I was round about the age of 7 to take me one day after school to our local branch library (an old two room Carnegie building)  to get me a library ticket. I can still remember the first book I chose for myself - a large illustrated volume about Carter's excavation of the Tutankhamun tomb. I think the text was too difficult for me, but I enjoyed looking at the pictures. 
My own daughter has had her own library card from the age of 3 and every other week we make a Saturday afternoon trip to get story books and DVDs. We often see the same families in the children's section of  the library and, as far as I can judge, they are not just drawn from the middle classes - though inevitably quite a few are.
I've got reasons then to feel instinctive hostility towards plans to cut library provision - my own County has quite extensive plans to make "efficiency savings" and has just concluded a "public consultation". I've personally benefited enormously from the system and I hope my daughter will too.  But, I feel uneasy. Looking at the evidence rationally rather than emotionally I can see that some of the resources devoted to the public library system are probably misallocated. Consider a county like Oxfordshire with a large rural and small town population. Library buildings last a long time and locations that made perfect sense 50 years ago may not make as much sense now. But public feeling tends to get very firmly attached to what was relevant in the distant past rather than what is sensible today. Public policy always involves making choices: more of this (or in the current climate the same of this) means less of that. If you look at spending priorities one by one in isolation it is  impossible to decide which services deserve support. They all deserve support, but that is not a choice within  the politically feasible set.

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