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Are Free Libraries Still Justified?

Via Enter the Octopus, Kevin Myers at The Independent asks: Are free libraries still justified?

Now, only a baboon would deny the usefulness of free libraries to children. But why should any well-paid person like myself have their literary tastes paid for, including author royalties, by the taxpayer? Meanwhile, the bookshop down the road has to match the range of taxpayer-funded facilities being provided free of charge at the library, and make a profit, a concept about as foreign to a state-run lending library as toilet paper is to a fish.


About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

16 Comments on Are Free Libraries Still Justified?

  1. first the obama death star, now this. i much prefer sf signal when it sticks to sf. perhaps you guys could start a different site devoted to politics and sf.

  2. Shrink libraries until you can drown them in a bathtub? No worries. Anyone wishing or hoping for the disappearance of free libraries will do wonders in helping to promote the trading of “pirated” e-books. Right now it’s a small subculture — why not make it explode onto the public consciousness?

    Next thing you know they’ll be calling libraries “socialist” along with air and rain. How dare people breathe for free?

  3. Myers has some rather specious arguments in his article.  And some of what he says is not applicable in the United States, which doesn’t offer an annual payment to authors the way libraries in many other countries do.


    Two points I would make in refutation to his comments:


    He asks, “If free books, why not free theatre, free concerts and free dance?”  But these things do get offered for free.  In fact, often they are part of a free program provided by – wait for it – your local library.


    And he claims that people can access the Internet for free at home, but given the number of people flocking to their public libraries to use the Internet to do research to find jobs, I would suspect that many people don’t have computers at home.


    Disclosure: I am a Library Trustee of the Public Library of Brookline, MA.

  4. No no no. Libraries are so much more than “free books”. Actually, you don’t get free books at the library at all — you can only keep them for a limited time. If you want your own copy you still have to buy it. I find it strange to think of a library as a competition to book stores.

    Libraries are meeting places, also. And information centers.

    And they are the places where you can try out your literary tastes and learn about things you would not have dared your last coins on.

    In those cases where libraries keep the books for more than about ten years, they are also a good way to find the books you cannot buy at your local bookstore. In a store all of the books are new, just published. In a library you can (hopefully, not at my local library at the time) read the older stuff, the things the stores cannot keep on the shelves.

    By the way, some public libraries (I encountered this in Munich) charge a yearly fee for a library card.


  5. Um… what about the adults who are not “well-paid”?

  6. Pete Tzinski // March 20, 2009 at 9:11 am //

    Ash just said what I came in to say. The whole article’s argument falls apart right at that line. How nice to be well-paid. I, and my wife, are definitely in the “not well paid” category (which we call “piss-poor”.) It is a big deal when I can invest money in a paperback novel these days. Not least because they cost me eight or nine bucks, the damn things. And when I DO do that, because this is money that is carefully spent…I am more likely to buy someone I already know. It goes to a Terry Pratchett, or an Asimov, or whatever.

    I heavily use both my University library, and my city library. They are massive places. I rove the shelves indiscriminantly and just pick things up and take them home on a whim. It’s how I discover new books, and new authors.

    It’s not helped by how much non-fiction I read too. That stuff’s EXPENSIVE. I can’t afford it. Money works differently, down at the bottom, I don’t need to tell anyone: the cost of a hardcover book is, honestly, a good portion of a week’s groceries for me, my wife, and my son. Compared against that, it doesn’t matter how hard I want to support poor struggling bookstore.

    I want to read more than I want to support a bookstore. And I want to feed my family more than I want to own a book. I wish it could be otherwise, because there is one thing I hate about libraries (when I’m done…I have to give the book BACK. That’s cruel.)

    Kevin Meyers is, apparently, a snob and a putz. And he clearly thought long and hard about this article. (“poor people? Ha ha ha! There are no poor people! Teh internetz would have tolded me if there was!”)


  7. Myers is an ass.

    Those libraries are not free.

    They are paid for by tax dollars. Here in the US, I use mine a lot to get back what I put in over the years.

  8. Free books? Try borrowed books payed for with tax-payer money. I mean really, to write an article objecting to libraries means someone has too much time on their hands and serious lack of ideas.

  9. In the past SFSignal was my first choice for sff news and I would check it every day; these days I find it much less interesting, with a ratio of junk to interesting things increasing very fast; putting an article like this as front page just exemplifies this sorry trend.

    Same with the so called Kindle killer – another piece of junk as front page.


     Guys try and do a better job – there is this announcement about Google and Sony and 500k free classics in reflowable formats like epub, not only pdf image scans as they were accesible so far

    And for anyone running Windows, not only PRS owners. That’s of much more relevance than something so poorly argued and done that shows why newspapers are dying a well derved death, and one piece of fluff on some overpiced device that nobody cares about



  10. “But why should any well-paid person like myself have their literary tastes paid for, including author royalties, by the taxpayer?”

    Because, in addition to books, film, media, digital downloads, internet access, etc, that he can access for free, the taxpayer is also paying the salaries of well-educated and experienced staff.

    We’re not here to sit at our desks and scowl over our half-glasses at you if you get too loud.  We’re here to answer questions, help with research on everything from spelling to job searching.  Not only do we handsell books, we can tailor the reading experience to you and your tastes.

    It’s the independent bookstore experience with one huge difference:  as a non-profit, we exist to look out for your best interest and tailor our services accordingly.  Any well-paid person who assumes he doesn’t need libraries because he can afford to buy his own books is doing himself a great disservice because we offer so much more than that.

  11. Luke Shea // March 20, 2009 at 11:13 am //

    I can definitely read more books in a month than I can pay for in three.  And that’s not to mention all those intelligent people who use libraries for reasearch, or broke students who can’t afford top ramen  but are expected to do weekly readings from multiple 200 dollar textbooks.  Libraries are massively important.

  12. Matte Lozenge // March 20, 2009 at 12:14 pm //

    Why should any group of people combine their resources to improve their opportunities and quality of life beyond what any can achive on their own?  Honestly, only an idiot like Benjamin Franklin would come up with a hare-brained scheme like that. 

  13. Another thought/suggestion:

    Many public libraries are severely underfunded and rely to a large extent on donations from citizens, charitable organizations, “Friends of Library X”-type groups and so on.  Sure, there’s taxpayer money going into it, but the people who really love their library often have to help support it.  I personally donate a bunch of books to my local branch and always do my best to buy a couple of books from their book sales. 

    I would encourage everyone who enjoys their public library to do the same… especially those of us who receive tons of review copies! 

  14. Rick York // March 20, 2009 at 4:43 pm //

    I think most of the commenters here have done a pretty good job of refuting Myers.  I’d be interested to know how different attitudes toward libraries are in the UK.  The free library has been a mainstay of American culture and education since before the US was started.

    Oh, you folks who object to this being on SFSignal really seem to miss the point.  Anything that restricts the public’s access to information is, ipso facto, bad for Science Fiction and its readers.  Why don’t you get that?


    Good on you Signal readers!

    Rick York




  15. Glenda York // April 8, 2009 at 8:18 pm //

    I work in a small public library in a rural area.  The library today is about so much more than just books.  Computer access for people who aren’t on-line at home, and aren’t lucky enough to have a good paying job, so that they can take classes and improve their skills is a must.  With the economy in the state it’s in on-line job applications are soaring as well.  Families are having to tighten their budgets and don’t have much extra money for entertainment.  Free books, DVD’s, and computer useage is pretty darn attractive.  The free library has been and always will be crucial to our civilization.

  16. I had the fortune of living at a good age in a place that had a public library and it stimulated a reading habit  that I still cultivate (It was Brookline, MA). But I’m Brazilian and when I came back from the US at 11 I wanted to go to the local library, but there was none, or the ones that do exist were sorry excuses for libraries. At the time it just didn’t make sense to me, how can there not be a good library? I’ve come to accept the reality and have noticed the consequences, that is few people like to read.

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