Libraries have value (and we’re paying for them)

Posted on February 14, 2013. Filed under: Library Woes | Tags: , , , , |

I am utterly appalled that an author would denounce libraries as being “no longer relevant” and proceed to complain that he’d be making more money if people didn’t get to check out books for free.

I’m talking, of course, of Terry Deary’s ridiculous statements to the Sunderland council (not being from the UK, I’m assuming that’s a city council) and to the Guardian. Going through the article, where I’ve taken all of the following quotes in italics, here is my response to someone who is clearly out of touch.

“I’m not attacking libraries, I’m attacking the concept behind libraries, which is no longer relevant.”

I don’t think I’m a particularly dense person, but I don’t see how there’s any difference between attacking libraries and attacking the concept behind them.

“Because it’s been 150 years, we’ve got this idea that we’ve got an entitlement to read books for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers.”

I will admit, I don’t know how it works over in the UK, so here’s how it works in the States. Libraries purchase books, usually through a distributor, at a price that’s often above retail. This money then goes to the distributor, who takes a cut, then is sent on to the various publishers, who take a cut, who then send it on to the author, who gets whatever is left. I apologize if any of that is flawed, but that is my understanding. This is, again from my understanding, not terribly different from when a retailer purchases any product. It is especially similar to music purchases. I often volunteer at a merchandise booth for a music venue, and every musician I’ve sold merch for has told me that it is better for them for fans to buy CDs at the show than to buy them online or in the store. That’s the only way the artist gets the full price for the CD.

You might be saying, “But Heather, people are paying money for those CDs, etc. They don’t have to pay  money to check out a book at the library!” What I have to say to you is, “Do you pay taxes? If so, you are paying money to use the library.”

The way it works where I live is everyone pays property taxes to the various cities, counties and school districts. For those people who rent, their landlords pay property taxes (and I guarantee that cost is being passed on to the tenants). Those taxes pay for public services, such as police, fire and the library. For many libraries, the amount received from taxes is the budget. Some libraries are fortunate enough to receive money from donors (looking at you with jealous eyes, Enoch-Pratt Free Library), and some receive grants (which hundreds of libraries are vying for). We use that money to not only purchase books and media, but also pay salaries (librarians gotta make a living, too) and overhead (gotta keep the lights on) and, if there’s anything left over, pay for programs that are of interest to and provide a service to our community. A very small percent of what we have comes to us for free. I’ve had people say something along the lines of “these books are all donated, right?” It’s rude to laugh in people’s faces, right?

And so ends the civics lesson. Back to Mr. Deary….

“This is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature. We pay for compulsory schooling to do that.”

Oh, dear me. He speaks as if poverty is a thing of the past. Has he perhaps been living under a rock? No, Mr. Deary, not everyone can afford to purchase every book they want to read, nor can they afford Internet access, much less a computer. Many are living paycheck to paycheck and have trouble putting food on the table, much less putting a book in their child’s hands. Books, Internet, cable TV… we forget that these are luxuries. When I was growing up, I was at the library every week checking out dozens of books. My single mother wouldn’t have been able to afford my reading habit, so does that mean that I should have only been allowed to read as much as we could afford to purchase?

Oh, but wait, Mr. Deary says that we pay for compulsory schooling to provide the impoverished access to literature. I can only assume that by “we,” he means taxpayers. (Remember our civics lesson? Where I live, my taxes also go to the local school district. Again, I can’t speak for the UK). Yes, I had access to my school libraries. No, every book I wanted to read was not available from my school library, hence my weekly visits to the public library. Let me ask, what happens when that impoverished person graduates (hopefully) from their compulsory schooling? They don’t suddenly become wealthy enough to afford to purchase books (remember, those are luxuries). Perhaps they go to college, maybe even graduate school, where they pay tuition, a portion of which goes to fund their academic library.  (Really, we’re adding another expense to the impoverished person, but we’ll say that the expense of higher education is deferred until after graduation). What happens to that person’s access to literature when they no longer have access to their academic library? I don’t know how it works elsewhere, but it’s been a few years since I received my Master’s. If I want to go back to my alma mater and check out books from the library there, not only do I have to pay a fee because I’m no longer paying tuition, but my access is limited by their policies. I read a few books a week, and I rarely read the same book twice. If I could afford to purchase every book I read, it would be rather fiscally irresponsible of me to buy a book that I would never look at again. Ah, but, according to Mr. Deary…

“People have to make the choice to buy books. People will happily buy a cinema ticket to see Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and expect to get the book for free. It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Books aren’t public property, and writers aren’t Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby. They’ve got to make a living. Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don’t expect to go to a food library to be fed.”

He’s making some generalizations here, as he does often in this article. I think I’ve already covered the “libraries aren’t actually free” argument, so let’s talk about the first part of the statement, that people will “happily buy a cinema ticket.” First, he could have picked a more recent, more successful example to strengthen his argument, such as the Twilight series, or the Hunger Games, or how about Harry Potter? Oh wait, all of those authors are hugely successful in their book sales. Second, yes, people go to the movies, but according to this 2011 MPAA industry report, ticket sales in the U.S. are driven by only 10 percent of the population. Maybe it’s different in the UK.

Now for the second part of the statement: I’ll ignore the dig at Enid Blyton (although I still have people come in looking for her books over 40 years after she died), and I don’t think that anyone would say that authors, booksellers, and publishers need to eat (though I don’t think he’s really talking about nourishment here). However, a “food library” does sound a whole lot like a synonym for “food bank” or “soup kitchen.”

Next, the Guardian says that Mr. Deary’s books were borrowed 500,000 times during the 2011/12 year, and he received 6.2p each time, up to the maximum cap.

“If I sold the book I’d get 30p per book. I get six grand, and I should be getting £180,000. But never mind my selfish author perception – what about the bookshops? The libraries are doing nothing for the book industry. They give nothing back, whereas bookshops are selling the book, and the author and the publisher get paid, which is as it should be. What other entertainment do we expect to get for free?”

Mr. Deary seems to assume that 500,000 in circulation equals 500,000 in missed sales. Here’s some news for you, Mr. Deary: you get nada in America when your books are borrowed except for, oh, free advertising. Librarians don’t have to display or talk up any book, but advising readers is part of what we do, and facilitating a connection between a reader and a book makes it a lot more likely that the reader will go on to purchase a book. The last time I was in a Barnes & Noble was nothing like visiting a library. B&N employees, while I’m sure some of them are knowledgeable, are nothing compared to librarians. If I had to count on a B&N, or any other bookstore employee (I don’t mean to pick on B&N — it’s just that there’s no more Borders or Hastings around here), to provide me with incentive to purchase a book, I would walk out empty-handed. It is a librarian’s job — nay, mission 🙂 — to ensure that no reader leaves without a book. I wouldn’t call that giving nothing back.

“Bookshops are closing down, he said, “because someone is giving away the product they are trying to sell. What other industry creates a product and allows someone else to give it away, endlessly?”

No, bookshops are closing down because it’s very difficult for brick-and-mortar stores to compete with online retailers (ahem, Amazon, ahem). If this weren’t the case, there wouldn’t be other struggling brick-and-mortar retailers. This isn’t even taking into account ebooks and illegal downloads. Remember, libraries still have to pay for what they put on the shelves, and as far libraries providing ebooks, here are two fun facts: not every publisher will sell to libraries, and those who do mark up the price often eight times higher than what you’d pay on Amazon.

“Books are part of the entertainment industry. Literature has been something elite, but it is not any more. This is not the Roman empire, where we give away free bread and circuses to the masses. People expect to pay for entertainment. They might object to TV licences, but they understand they have to do it. But because libraries have been around for so long, people have this idea that books should be freely available to all. I’m afraid those days are past. Libraries cost a vast amount … and the council tax payers are paying a lot of money to subsidise them, when they are used by an ever-diminishing amount of people.”

Again, I’ve already covered the idea of “free” as it pertains to public libraries in the United States. It seems that Mr. Deary thinks that libraries are only places to get free entertainment. Nevermind the services that we provide from babies on up, such as storytimes that focus on early literacy, after school programs that provide extended learning (because, let’s face it, too many schools are teaching to the test, and it’s difficult, if not impossible, for teachers to consistently provide the extras that enrich learning), computer education, job search and resume help, free Internet (remember, Internet access is a luxury when all of your money goes to the necessities), a free meeting space for community groups, and the list goes on. I find that people who haven’t been to a library recently have no clue what libraries nowadays provide, and they’re always surprised that we do so much with so little.

It’s too much to hope that Mr. Deary will change his mind about libraries, but I hope that his words will hold little sway over those who make decisions about the future of libraries. In the comments of the article, I read one that said his local library is (I’m paraphrasing) a dismal, depressing place, and that, I have to say, is what happens when a community decides its library is no longer important — everyone suffers. It seems to me that there’s already too many people suffering because a select few want an extra million or two in their pockets.



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