TOPIC GUIDE: Libraries

"Books should remain the essence of public libraries"

PUBLISHED: 01 Jan 2007

AUTHOR: James Gledhill

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Until recently, most people’s idea of a public library [Ref: Wikipedia] might have consisted of aisles of books covered in varying levels of dust, watched over by a bespectacled, tyrannical librarian. Now, though, in response to concerns about falling borrower numbers, libraries are being modernised and some even re-branded as Idea Stores [Ref: Idea Stores]. The modernisers argue that libraries have to adapt to the demands of the modern world, catering for literacy and lifelong learning, bringing the community together and providing services like coffee shops and training and employment advice. Books, they say, will always be an important part of a library, but in some cases may need to make room for the computers, DVDs and CDs demanded by the public. Reflecting this change in emphasis, spending on books fell from 15 per cent of total library service spending in 1990/91 to 10 per cent in 2000/01 [Ref: Audit Commission], with the result that libraries now have significantly fewer books. Those opposed to the new direction of libraries policy don’t dispute that a modern library must have computers. However, they claim that the real reason for the decline in library use has been underfunding, poor stocks and bad opening hours. And whatever the cause, they argue, libraries shouldn’t simply focus on increasing visitor numbers by the most efficient means possible, but must preserve what makes them unique institutions. On this view, the shift in focus away from books is symptomatic of a worrying trend away from a belief in the importance of making the knowledge and enjoyment contained in our literary culture available to everyone. What’s the greatest danger to the future of libraries: libraries failing to change, or changing beyond all recognition?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What are the origins of public libraries, and why do people argue they need to be modernised?
Although university and subscription libraries were quite common in Britain from the seventeenth century, it was not until the hard fought for Public LIbrary Act of 1850 [Ref: Spartacus] that tax-funded institutions open to the public were first created. The move met with hostility from Conservative MPs who objected to the idea of public funding for a service that would mainly be used by the working class for self-education. Public libraries were hailed as ‘universities of the street-corner’, where access to the canon of ‘Great Books’ [Ref:  Wikipedia] was seen as opening up knowledge, and with it freedom, to the masses. So what has changed? Books are easier to acquire than ever before, whether from the supermarket or from Amazon, and the internet provides alternative ways of accessing information. In addition, the idea of a common culture defined by the classics has been criticised and replaced, in the view of many, by the need to cater for a multiplicity of groups with different interests.

What are public libraries for?
The changes extolled by modernisers, which have seen libraries take inspiration from internet cafés and high street bookshops, are some of the things sceptics are concerned about. Modernisers believe that libraries need to compete in the modern marketplace and provide the level of experience consumers expect on the high street. Sceptics say libraries will never appeal to everyone and should focus on meeting the needs of users (both current and lapsed) rather than attracting non-users, as space for reading and studying tends to be reduced by the introduction of computers and other services. The government has defended giving libraries £80 million of lottery money [Ref: Times Online] that cannot be spent on books. Culture minister David Lammy fronted the Love Libraries campaign [Ref: Love Libraries] and argues (dead link) that ‘books are absolutely central to the library experience’. But some commentators argue [Ref: Guardian] the fact that such a reassurance needs to be made is evidence of a problem.

Should a public library be a community hub or a gateway to a world of literature?
‘Public libraries have a vital role to play in helping local authorities achieve their communities’ social, economic and environmental aspirations - they are much more than just places to borrow books’ argues Andrew Stevens [Ref: Guardian] of the MLA [Ref: MLA]. This view is echoed in calls to recognise that libraries have become village halls [Ref:] that promote ‘social well being’ (dead link) rather than simply being free book shops or book depositaries. Indeed, it has been suggested that libraries should not be defined by the stock on their shelves, but rather should be seen as ‘curiosity satisfaction centres’ [Ref: Demos]. However, such ideas have drawn criticism with the novelist Susan Hill [Ref: Good Library Guide] and other writers [Ref: Times Online] amongst those bemoaning the redevelopment of libraries as social centres. The campaign group Libri (dead link) has argued that this represents an ‘unacceptable dumbing down of ambition and standards’ (dead link).

Is there anything special about books?
A further aspect of the debate is whether technological development will render printed books obsolete and whether we should be concerned if it did. Google is bus digitising libraries worth of books [Ref: Times Online] (see Google Book Search [Ref: Google Book Search]) and digitised books could be printed on demand [Ref: Guardian]. Libraries may remain focussed on books, but they won’t necessarily be books as we currently know them. For traditionalists, though, the physical experience of entering the different world of the library and browsing bookshelves remains important. They argue (dead link) that a search engine can only sift information whereas an index of books is the work of a mind with knowledge.


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Lammy answers his critics

Katherine Rushton interviews David Lammy The Bookseller 4 May 2006

Is this the library of the future?

Megan Lane BBC News 18 March 2003


A treasure house for Moomins, Biggles and well-thumbed pages

Phillip Pullman The Times 25 March 2006

Our public libraries are in dire need of renewal

Tim Coates Guardian 7 September 2005

The decline of the public library

Philip Pettifor spiked 2 September 2005


The personal library - now there’s an idea

Helen Rumbelow The Times 26 October 2006

Libraries begin uncertain new chapter

Chris Alden Guardian 22 February 2006

Foreword to Libraries impact project

Mark Hepworth Laser Foundation 1 July 2005

Public libraries changing lives

Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA)

What’s the big idea?

Idea Store, Tower Hamlets Borough Council


Could this be the final chapter in the life of the book?

Bryan Appleyard The Sunday Times 21 January 2007

From university to village hall

Libri 18 July 2005

Overdue: How to create a modern public library service

Charles Leadbeater Demos 22 May 2003


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

A librarian’s lament: books are a hard sell

Thomas Washington Washington Post 21 January 2007

When teacher turns into a mouse

Brenda Despontin The Times 8 May 2006

Are our libraries being neglected?

Times Online Debate 23 March 2006

The tyranny of reading

Hester Lacey Guardian 17 August 2005

The year literacy finally died

Andrew Cunningham Daily Telegraph 30 June 2005


Department for Culture Media and Sport


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

Google plots e-books coup

The Sunday Times 21 January 2007

Net gains as library users go surfing

Guardian 17 January 2007

2.5m digital books on one £25,000 machine

Observer 31 December 2006

Library supply and demand

The TImes 2 November 2006

Writer rues library changes

Guardian 11 September 2006

Love it or lose it

BBC News 22 June 2006

Love your library, forget the books

The Times 23 March 2006

Outcry over loss of public libraries

The Times 21 March 2006

Library borrowing still declining

BBC News 13 January 2005

Library ‘has no books’, MP says

BBC News 18 November 2004

Upturn in visits to UK libraries

BBC News 1 June 2004

‘UK libraries out of use by 2020’

BBC News 27 April 2004

Luxurious libraries?

BBC News 13 November 2003

Is this the library of the future?

BBC News 18 March 2003

Read not dead

BBC News 16 May 2000


UK’s libraries face crisis

BBC News 23 October 2004

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