Dear, Dear, Terry Deary! Are Libraries Finished?

Terry Deary Who has put the cat among the pigeons!

Terry Deary Who has put the cat among the pigeons with his statements about Public Libraries

If it weren’t for me, Terry Deary would be nowhere now! Actually, that’s what Terry joked to me once. I illustrated a book of his, many years ago, which was paperbacked by Scholastic. That was his first book for Scholastic and the beginning of their very profitable relationship that lead to the amazingly successful Horrible Histories series.

Terry is a Card-carrying, old-school renegade. He’ll make a stand against anything that looks like authority just to make a bit of noise. I’m afraid that Terry, is just “being Terry.” You have to remember that Terry is an actor first and foremost and he loves a bit of drama.

Terry is more a manufacturer of commodities than what one imagines an author to be. At the height of the Horrible Histories fame, he set his researchers going at a new subject on the first of each month. Then, together they cobbled up a new book with a snappy title and added it to the production line. Librarians loved them, bought them in droves and promoted them like nothing else. Now they don’t have the funds to buy more of Terry’s books, Terry rails at them for lending out his books. He claims to have lost £180,000 a year in lost book sales because Libraries lend them out! Well, of course that’s not true. People who borrow books for free wouldn’t go out and buy them. And it’s a little ungracious of him, he would have to spend that much every year in marketing and publicity just to buy the promotion that Libraries have given him for free all these years.

But all the same Terry is expressing the little voice of doubt that nags away at all authors and librarians. Authors, publishers and librarians don’t know what to do. The Tsunami of the internet, for so long a problem that would have to be dealt with one day, is building a giant wave in front of our eyes and it is starting to crash all around us. Libraries let the computers in a long time ago. Appeasement hasn’t worked – it never does!

Two years ago, I wrote about Libraries being the Pillars of Civilisation. A lot has changed in that time.

I’ve had quite a few conversations with librarians since. I’ve met some young librarians who can’t wait to get rid of all those horrible dusty books and get down to the real work of organising all that loose data that’s floating around out there. Some have great visions of community informations centres. Others have seen the writing on the wall and are preparing their escape plans. Others are stunned, powerless in the face of the oncoming juggernaut.

Authors don’t know what to do. Anyone can be an author these days and they are jolly well taking up the chance. You can’t move for people who are writing books and flinging them up on the wall of Amazon to see what sticks. I’m afraid authors have had their day too. Or at least the old idea of being an author, someone special, chosen to be good enough to have their idea turned into a book. Our comfortable, middle-class existence has come to an end. We have to join the cue and try to shout louder than everyone else – which is what Terry Deary is doing now – and doing very successfully. See how much press he’s getting? Remember there is no such thing as bad publicity, you just need a thick skin to put up with the temporary flak.

The fact is that our gentle, rose-tinted image of libraries, has had its day. When we think of a library, we imagine a large room full of books and a nice lady stamping them in and out at the desk. Well, half of that has gone already. No one visits a library for the reference department any more. It’s all online, why would you bother battling through the sleet and snow to look something up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica? Reference departments in libraries have been reduced to a single bottom shelf for several years now. The specialist stuff, local history and the like, continues but even so – it’s slowly being digitised and as such is so much easier to search and access online.

So what is a modern Library for? That is the big question.

Everyone who is campaigning to save the libraries is campaigning for their own personal idea of what a library is. Look at the statistics – public libraries are used by old people, who still have a reading habit, but that sector will be in sharp decline. Old people can and do use kindles and the internet. Once a negative critical mass is reached, Libraries will not be able to justify buying thrillers and romance books for them anymore and the adult fiction department will close. I’m sure Boots the Chemists will check to see if there is a chance of opening up that old part of their business that was nationalised by public libraries.

Libraries are also full of people using computers – emailing home to Poland, running eBay businesses even looking up the Encyclopaedia Britannica – like in the old days.

But it’s the Children’s department that continues to flourish, even with all the distractions of the internet and tv.

It may be because the School’s Literacy Strategy has been such a disaster. Parents who care, realise that the only way to get their children to learn to read is to go and borrow lots of books from the library and read stories with them. That’s how it’s always been done and how those who learn to read, despite the literacy strategy, still do. Stories have been removed from education but, thankfully, the libraries are still full of them. They even have story time sessions and when did schools last have those? Libraries, in fact, are the most essential part of the education system, and that’s what they always were.

Public Libraries grew up out of the worker’s institutes, places where you could educate and improve yourself and get away from the grim realities of being at the bottom of the heap. If you wanted to read a thriller or a romance, you went to the circulating library and paid your weekly subs. Why did free entertainment become become a right? Terry Deary has a point there.

I think we need a new name for public libraries. A library, by definition, is a collection of books and a librarian is one who collates and looks after them. Just as merchant banks and high street banks need to separate, so do libraries need to separate from local education/information centres, which is what I think the public library has become.

We need public libraries to help young families keep up the reading – kids need lots of books and lots of practice to get the knack of reading and that is a skill we require our citizens to have and should be prepared to support them in their endeavour.

We need information centres where we can find stuff out and learn those skills that don’t need a college course or module points. We need a new breed of Public Librarian – someone who knows, or knows how to find out, someone who will help you find the information you need or put you on the right road to discovering it yourself. Someone who can put you in touch with your local history and let you feel part of somewhere. Someone to coordinate and bring together a sense of community in a rapidly fractionating world.

Books on loan, especially children’s books, may well be a part of the mix, but let’s not get hung up on an old technology that is rapidly being surpassed by ebooks, TV and the internet. Children are not born with an innate allegiance to paper books. They don’t care about the medium – it’s the stories and the pictures that matter.

I love libraries. I love their smell and their ambience, but so do I love old country houses. I’m sure people loved having only two channels to watch on TV and only four radio stations to listen too and… oh! …sending children up chimneys and polio and dyptheria, those were the good old days!

I’m sorry Authors. We have had our golden years. It’s been great and thanks for the ride. It was a wonderful time we will look back on. A time we could live quietly in our nice middle class comfort and bask in the glamorous title of Author, but it’s over, everyone’s an author now – move on. We have to find some new way to validate our existence.

If you want to see libraries running as they used to, all silence, dusty books and fearsome Librarians, then start a re-enactment society. I’m sure you’ll get a few visitors on a wet bank holiday.

For those who cannot or can’t be bothered to read, there is a YouTube spoken version of this text. It gave me a great opportunity to test my newly constructed teleprompter.