You will not find a more passionate advocate of literacy than me. Reading is the key to so much -- education, enlightenment, defence against tyranny -- that I am anguished by the thought of its decline. Books can entertain and delight, transport and comfort us. Truly, as the motto on that series has it, Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side. I was blessed to have been born into a house full of books, but I soon used them up, and after that my chief haunt was the public library.
This was a fusty place of parquet floors and silence. All the librarians but one seemed to be spinsters, with every connotation of that word. The exception was their leader. He wore a discreet blazer and an old boys' tie from the grammar school. He sometimes worked on the front desk, with the rubber stamps and the plywood trays of cards. His sternness concealed a kindly nature. "You again?" he would say, looking down.
Developing the argument
Times change. The library is no longer silent, and it no longer favours books. Indeed, the stock at my local libraries is dwindling. As books fall to pieces, they are unlikely to be replaced. I search the shelves for quality: and find most of it has been relegated to a cramped section labelled Classics.
The building, now, hardly merits the name "library" at all. It is a media centre, a shop, a nexus of propaganda and control, by government both local and central.
Much space is taken up by stands of music and films. These are rented out, directly competing with private companies; the titles on offer cover the whole spectrum of taste. More space is occupied by tables of PCs giving "free" access to the internet. The other week my home connection went down. I needed the Web, so I went to the library, but stayed as briefly as possible, for I was surrounded by children playing noisy online games and found it hard to concentrate.
Yet more space is given over to racks of greetings cards for sale, also in competition with nearby businesses. And regularly, laid out on trestles or even on one of the counters, I find a display of jewellery, or clothing, or craftwork, produced locally and put on subsidized sale.
Subsidized, of course, by taxpayers, because we supply the premises. I think particularly of an elderly council-tax payer, a widow perhaps, who cannot afford to heat her home. Her wretched pension is no longer even supplemented by the wretched income from her savings, thanks to Brown's bullying down the bank rate. She has received, last month, a whopping demand from the council, and if she can't or won't pay up they'll put her in jail.
And don't get me started on the multitude of nannying posters and leaflets and the smug, right-on ecosystem of which they form a part. It's as if the studio of You and Yours has, like some technicolor nightmare, come to life, the air pervaded by an unspoken injunction that we must be grateful.
Well, I am not grateful. Indeed, I am doubly ungrateful. If the library system is subsidized by the taxpayer, it is even more heavily subsidized by the content-providers. Notable among these are authors, whose own average income makes that of our elderly widow look positively plutocratic.
For the patient reader who has got this far, a few words about the economics of authorship are in order. Consider a hardback retailing for £17.99. For a middling or beginning author, a royalty rate of 10% is about the best to be had. After the agent's cut, the author might be credited with £1.49.
That is for a copy sold at full price. The collapse of the Net Book Agreement and the rise of discounters is pushing per-copy rates ever lower. On such deals, the author receives 10% of the price received; maybe as low as 40p on a £17.99 copy. Paperback rates are even worse, since 50% must typically be given to the publisher of the original hardback.
Let's pretend the library pays full price for the book. If, over its lifetime, it is lent out 150 times, that copy will effectively generate the author 1p a loan. An unknown number of other copies will not be sold.
For decades, authors' groups pressed for an end to this injustice. Their scheme was called Public Lending Right. It provided for authors to be remunerated from central funds for every notional loan. By the 1980s the campaign was bearing fruit, and the culture minister of the day, Paul Channon, started a consultation process.
I wrote to him. He replied. I can still remember one line of my acknowledgement: "Your answer is every bit as flat and evasive as I had feared it would be."
I had argued against Public Lending Right. I saw no reason why it should be paid from the public purse. No reason why the reading matter of the prosperous should be subsidized by the poor and by those who never set foot in a library. No reason why anyone who could afford it -- excluding the young, pensioners, and those in full-time education or on benefits -- should not pay a reasonable sum per loan.
Like most consultation processes, this one was probably a sham. The present PLR scheme was brought in. It involves a largish staff, computers, hefty admin costs. The per-loan rate is insultingly low, and in no way compensates the author or indeed the publisher for the consequent loss of sales. With rewards for writing as low as they are, every sale counts.
You might argue that libraries provide a showcase for authors. That readers are willing to borrow a book they would never risk buying. Perhaps so, but that is still no reason not to charge a commercial loan-fee. Librarians make one for a CD. Why not a book?
Now we come to the real problems with libraries. The first is editorial control. Someone you don't know, in some government-funded office, decides which books will and will not appear on the library shelves. If a book is panned in the Library Journal, or even if it just receives a dismissive "not a necessary purchase", it's doomed, as least as far as the "showcase" is concerned.
The next is the devaluation of what writers do. An attitude has arisen that books should be cheap, if not completely free. The corollary of this is the destruction of talent. No one who has not started a literary career from scratch can know how grindingly depressing it can be. Just finding an agent can take years of expense, submission and rejection. And at the moment, the publishing industry is in a tailspin. Times have rarely been worse. Authorship has become Hollywoodized: because of the economies of scale, publishers only want bestsellers.
Who knows how many writers just give up? Who knows what books have been lost to the world? Not all the blame can be laid at the library's door, but some of it certainly can.
I believe that little or no case can now be made for public libraries as an agent of literacy. Most literature in the public domain is freely available on the net. Do you want a copy of Paradise Lost? Choose one here. In a few years' time electronic publication will be the norm. Ebook displays will have developed to the point where any sort of print can be perfectly reproduced on a screen.
Years ago, the public library system was one of the glories of our culture. It enabled the working class to better itself -- although here I involuntarily think of Leonard Bast in Howards End. Still, it was a profound force for good.
But as I said earlier, times change. And it's time we called time on the libraries.