I can already hear the screams of ‘Noooo!’ – but hear me out and I’ll explain why this might just work.
I owe an indescribable amount of debt to libraries – from the ‘Bookworm Club’ I belonged to as a child at my local library (yes you’re getting on a bit too if you remember that!), to the university libraries that afforded unlimited access to academic reports and journals. I never want to see a single library close.
Libraries are perhaps the single biggest ticket to ‘social mobility’; and whether you agree with this divisive governmental metric or not, it cannot be argued that knowledge is indeed key (power?).
When faced with a Treasury sock drawer devoid of spare cash it is hard to make a case for increased funding in light of the dwindling numbers of library users; and with the number of borrowed books halving since 1997 we must attract more people back into libraries.
Whether we like it or not we live in a world where investment is driven only by demand; and with the demise of nationalised institutions (another debate entirely), almost every governmental department makes decisions based on business cases.
So if we accept that there is no funding available, let’s make the business case for investment.
Why are the cafés of Waterstones and their ilk so popular and profitable? The coffee is expensive and so are the books (compared to online retailers).
These are places of social convenience; where customers can sit down with friends and family and chat, or the solitary user can read a book, a newspaper, or browse the internet for free. This is in stark contrast to the spectre of a ‘shushing’ librarian from behind chained reading glasses – chastising you for daring to cough or talk at a volume barely discernable to dogs.
The answer to saving our libraries may just be their total destruction.
Can you picture a state-of-the-art building full of books, magazines and periodicals of all sizes, with free wifi zones? How about the provision of eReaders for users who prefer to hold something electronic in their hands?
Conference rooms, lecture rooms, presentation suites, private venues for hire, cafés – maybe even a bar? Dare we suggest a bookstore too?
Moreover, we could encourage noise – as much as you want – offset by the provision of dedicated quiet zones for those who still crave abject silence.
Could we attract investment from industry to build and run such an edifice on behalf of local government? Provision of ‘free to all access’ to books and the internet could be supplemented by profit realised from book sales and café/bar revenues.
Function rooms could be provided for free to local not-for-profit organisations and institutions like the Job Centre to deliver ‘back to work’ courses – offset by an agreed allocation of time slots for corporate hire.
The provision of books and periodicals could be financially augmented by publisher sponsorship, book signings and by advertising that offers reduced subscription rates for those discovering interesting reads at their local library.
It is not beyond the wit of man to maintain the status quo on the provision of free library services; complemented and secured by the provision of enhanced fee-paying services to encourage investment.
To those gritty protesters and volunteers prepared to run our libraries on our behalf – a heartfelt thank you.
Your steely determination and protests have ensured this contentious issue remains in the public domain. I just don’t believe a volunteer-run library system is the answer to increasing the growth that is needed to secure their future; a sticking plaster for a major haemorrhage.