NOT so long ago, readers wouldn’t dare rustle a newspaper in a public library for fear of being ejected by a phalanx of bibliomaniacs wearing half-moon glasses. Now, librarians are in charge of background muzak as well as access to increasing platoons of computers. Noise is also actively encouraged in the Kiddies’ Korner, where unruly toddlers are told stories loudly as part of a ‘reading scheme’. (Beware mandarins proposing schemes, pilot or otherwise.) Where once you could borrow a score of Josef Forster’s opera Die Rose von Pontevedra and four hundred other items of equally dim provenance, there are now instruction manuals for mouth organ and rock guitar, and one moribund copy of Handel’s Messiah . On my next visit, I wouldn’t be surprised to find a bar open in the corner, decorated with badly-executed paintings of Shakespeare, Byron and Dylan Thomas by local sixth-formers.
The huge space created by ‘modernisation’ is actually a swath cut through the library’s book stock, millions of volumes of which are disposed of regularly at council sales. The message is clear: books are fuddy-duddy, whereas cyberspatial info technology is ‘cool’, like the lurid paint used to re-decorate the library walls. Why is this when plenitude rather than commercial desperation accounts for the huge number of books being offered cut-price to the reading public? Why are we accommodating the non-literate in havens of the inscribed page?
Discounts and deals in bookshops and advertisements focus the mind much less than the huge volume of titles, and this at a time when more people are reported to be forsaking printed words. All the evidence suggests a bountiful time ahead for readers and publishers. It also runs counter to continuing predictions that books will soon be obsolete. So are we witnessing a cultural shift or the beginnings of its seismic repudiation, and has the windy library-cum-discotheque got it wrong?
Among the first to be concerned about the disappearance of books as carriers of information were writers and readers of prose fiction, people with an interest in perpetuating a seemingly immoveable art form and therefore its traditional means of reproduction. Possibly less distraught were poets and poetry readers, except those who believed that a poem was something that assumed a certain shape and regularity on a page and was not primarily a neat marshalling of words to be uttered in company. To be upset by the idea that books might be permanently replaced by some other method of transmitting narratives and ideas suggests a relationship, possibly irrational, between reader and reading-matter that goes beyond mere function.
The bulk of books today looms much larger as a consideration when trying to make space. The two-volume New Oxford English Dictionary weighs around 14lbs, whereas its CD-Rom is small and light enough to be mislaid, perhaps the only reason for choosing the heavier option. Of course, there is the question of vanity. Hardly any photograph of writers in their lairs omit shelves of books, the backdrop that lends them gravity and authority in the same way that being pictured in a smiling group will bestow on loners the gregariousness they possibly crave.
Apologists will adduce half-baked ergonomic theories to support their belief that the smell, the feel and the solidity of bound, printed paper justifies book publishing, while having nothing to say about content, the only reason they want to read in the first place. Despite the weakness of these arguments, heralds of the alternatives seem to be making little headway, suggesting that their promoters and not their inventors are the more zealous in predicting the death of the book. Experts on how to get literary work into print are warning that ‘on-line’ publishing is fast catching up with small-circulation literary magazines as a means of winning unpaid and possibly short-lived renown for writers of faint ambition.
But not even inferior binding, poor quality paper and atrocious editing – elements of production that might make readers swim towards some other form of processed information – have diminished the appeal of books and printed pages; indeed, the quality of magazines is improving and their number growing. However, we have the Kindle and its commercial simulacra. If anything could sway the doubters, this was it: a gizmo stretched almost to rupture by its scope for easily-imaginable refinement, such as the ability to store the complete works of Dostoyevsky (and offer a bio-pic of the author, for good measure.)
However, technological advance has become confused with economic opportunity, and the evidence that people are catching on is illustrated by the renewed interest in vinyl records and the realisation that mobile phones are more destructive than imperative, albeit it two commodities that have no place in a library. Small happenings, maybe, but indications that so-called progress is being exposed as simply change. Doubters are even saying that if a computer were asked to come up with a means of transmitting bulk text in manageable form it would deliver a book or a magazine, probably made of paper, and suggest that the user should curl up with it on a settee. Seduced by background music and the relentlessly audio-visual, our library services are unlikely to be impressed.
Despite government spending reviews on the modernisation of public services and their suggestion that Heritage Lottery money might be a useful way of renewing the supply of books and other materials ‘following a substantial period of neglect’, it is impossible to disguise the changes in what a library is now perceived to be.
Libri, a charity which campaigns to improve UK libraries, now scheduled for closure everywhere, has warned that if present trends continued, borrowings of books would entirely cease in the next 20 years. It revealed a halving of visitor numbers since 1984 and recommended a threefold increase in spending on books, the refurbishment of the often decrepit buildings that housed them and an extension of opening times. In a follow-up report, it said it could not identify much improvement in the ‘dire’ situation it described formerly and warned of a worrying new trend: the reluctance of some senior librarians and policy-makers (including the Department of Culture, Media and Sport) to regard providing books as their prime responsibility.
The paradox is that reading continues to be popular. The number of books sold in the UK has increased by 20% since 1997. Local council funding for libraries has also risen, but spending on books has fallen dramatically, a fact that confirms what any reasonably intelligent library member has known for about ten years – the philistine decline of his local library into some vague ‘information’ service, with books occupying less and less space.
Perhaps senior library staff, tied to the printed page but seduced by technological trends the significance or irrelevance of which they only half understand, should attend their sales of discarded books (not all of them foxed and dog-eared beyond redemption) and try to explain the stampede as the doors open. Libraries certainly need shaking up, but books should not be the casualties.