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November 07, 2017


This makes me happy.

"...because they're one of the few places these days where people can be a community without paying for the privilege."

Absolutely this.

It may be one of the significant differences between the Gilded Age and our current reprise of it.

Then you had guys like Rockerfeller spending big chunks of their vast wealth on doing things like establishing public libraries around the country. Whereas today? There are a few (Buffett, Gates) spending money on the actual public good. And rather more spending their money principally on funding candidates for public office who will allow them to increase their wealth.

Somehow all the vocal nostalgia for the past doesn't include that kind public spirited generosity.

P.S. Best of luck with the Ballot Question.

I urge my fellow NJans to vote YES on this question.

Done! (Of course, with my wife being a recent Volunteer of the Year at our local library, it was pretty well settled already.)

I know a number of folks who use the library for free internet access. The number of things that are inaccessible to you if you can't get online grows every day.

Public libraries are one of the greatest institutions we have ever established here.


Yes, in the Sandy aftermath it became clear that libraries were needed to keep people connected with their jobs. Workplaces had to contact people to let them know when/where to go, so workers HAD to have charged phones and/or access to email. A place to charge your phone isn't a luxury, it's a life necessity.

This is a wonderful post. Libraries are being closed all over the UK, to our great shame. Local communities band together, and occasionally get a closure cancelled or delayed, but the movement is in the wrong direction. I would almost say that the attitude of a society towards its libraries is a perfect indicator of the health or otherwise of that society. I hope we have thousands of lurkers, and that they have all been inspired to action by this post!

Locally the ballot question on building a new library is being voted on today. I dont get to vote, but signed the petition anyway just for support.

I am hopeful it passes.


One of the things that prompted me to make this post was hearing about library-closings in the UK. I find it honestly incomprehensible. Do UK public libraries not have the range of services & activities US ones do?

For instance, my local public library, in addition to books, has: music; movies; computers for public use; bookable rooms (used for all kinds of meetings), a large children's area with scheduled activities; a large teen/YA area with comfy furniture, comics, and art; jigsaw puzzles; chess tables; a room for the local historical society; rotating exhibits by local arts & crafts groups. The library is next to the high school, and if you come in between school getting out and about 6 o'clock you'll find lots of student-tutor pairs scattered among the tables.

This is not nearly the largest or most elaborate library in the county, either. But as you can tell it's a crucial piece of public space, and there is NO WAY it would be closed. When I was growing up in Connecticut the public library was also important, but probably less than it is today.

What is the library culture like in the UK, that people will tolerate closing them?

If it's anything like Seattle, WA - people (rich people - people who vote) don't go to libraries any more. Everything they need can be done from the comfort of their home so libraries are just where those icky poor people go. It's like people without kids in the home just do not vote for school bonds, IGMFY.

I think it's that libertarian mentality as expressed by the Reason magazine editor where he opined that libraries should be shut down as everyone can just buy e-books now.

I'm sorry to hear that Seattle has gone that way. But the good (less bad?) news is that it isn't universal.

I live in a relatively wealthy suburb east of San Francisco and north from Silicon Valley. But the public library is going strong. Not quite the swirl of activity that Dr S. describes. But definitely heavily used by everyone from senior citizens to students.

Of course, in this town the public library has been a big deal since we were a small farm town just beginning to think about becoming a suburb. But we went from 4000 people to over 45000 without losing that feature. Thank goodness!

Doc, I attach some links from last year, which you may have seen yourself during the course of your research. I think the root cause is the absolutely draconian cuts in government funding to local councils (who are responsible for funding libraries) in the ongoing austerity era since the 2008 crash, and particularly of course since the 2010 election which brought the Tory/LibDem coalition to power. I didn't know the detail of the following, but assumed something of the sort was the case:

Under the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act, local councils have a statutory duty “to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons”.

This has apparently been only weakly enforced. Many of our libraries (but not all) have many of the facilities you describe, and libraries have been trying to adapt to changing times for as long as I remember. As for why people tolerate libraries closing, it is within a context of other vital services being cut to the bone and beyond as well: disability benefits, funding to e.g. rape crisis centres, services to accelerate learning for the most disadvantaged kids pre-primary school etc etc. People tolerate the closing of libraries like they tolerate everything else. I think the population has become numbed and cynical, and lost the will to protest except in self-harming ways like Brexit. The exception may be the young people who have flocked to Jeremy Corbyn's banner, with what results we will have to wait and see.




When I was a child, say fifty years ago, I used to walk every week to the town library and borrow books, which I took home and read.

My children have never done that. I've taken them to the library, but they're not that interested. Perhaps it's my fault, because I'll readily buy them any book they want (or at least, any book they want which a library might stock).

So I suppose that libraries are closing because there are fewer readers using them. Perhaps because almost everyone who's interested in reading can afford to buy books. Or perhaps because there's so much more electronic entertainment on offer.

personally, i haven't been to a library in a decade. and i haven't taken a book out of a library since 1993 at the earliest. i don't even know if my current town has a library.

earliest, latest, whatever. some -est.

Reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a colleague who, in his travels, was impressed with the comparative resourcefulness and accessibility of libraries in the US. He was saying that, in Europe, libraries tended to make checking out books and using other services difficult.

So, perhaps we can celebrate an area of public infrastructure in which the US is actually progressive and competent?

p.s. Signed: a frequent user of libraries for books and physical work space,

My wife and I use the library all the time. Books, movies, lectures. Mostly (by a very very wide margin) books.

It's a nice place. You don't even have to buy a coffee to use the wifi.


The US libraries I have visited are very much like the ones we have in Finland, but a German colleague told me that their libraries are worse. He claimed that the library of a nearby city has a better selection of German children's books than his hometown's library.

Personally, the one feature I really like in my local public library is its provincial approach: I can order any book stocked by any public library in the province to my home library free of charge, which allows me to get rather rare books easily delivered to wihin a mile from my home. And when I visit a city library, I can return the books to my rural local library.

I take my children to the local library, to borrow good-night stories, about once or twice a month.

I will be stopping in the library on my way home to see my wife and (most of my) kids just before voting at the polling place next door to the library. Tuesday evening is story time for my youngest, and my daughters volunteer as wranglers of young children at such events. My wife will occasionally conduct story time when there is no staff person available. I believe they're showing Percy Jackson (not sure which one) after that, so they're spending hours there tonight. (I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the library a year of so ago, not being one normally to rush out and see movies as soon as they come out, even if I really want to see them.)

They may or may not check out books. But they'll be there doing stuff either way.

I'm sorry to hear that Seattle has gone that way.

Whoa there....not so fast. Seattle passed a huge bond issue some years ago, and has some really great and modern facilities. King County (wherein Seattle resides) likewise has a robust library system. Alas, the grand and new main city city library is a bit of an architectural joke...but hey, props for trying!

"Perhaps because almost everyone who's interested in reading can afford to buy books."

*spit take*

I think perhaps the kindest thing I can assume about that is that in your naive affluence you simply don't notice the daily increase in the number of working poor, some of whom like to read just as much as you do. Yes, I know, what a concept, that people just as educated as you--just as literate--just as thoughtful--might not have discretionary income to spend on books.

After the Great Recession, our county board broke their long-standing promise and raided the county library system's funding for other purposes. Two years later voters approved a ballot initiative to give the libraries back their money, a bit more of the property tax pie, and changed the rules so the commissioners couldn't touch any of it. Passed easily.

I'd still like to see them put a little maker space in one of the branches near me, with a 3D printer and maybe a small laser acrylic cutter...


That was particularly short-sighted of your county, because library use went UP with the Recession because of job-seekers.


Many US public library systems have also gone to a county-wide book pool like yours. When I learn of a book I might like, I can log onto the county's library catalog, see if it's in the system, and have it delivered to my local branch within 1 or 2 days.

I can now also place inter-library loan requests online, also suggestions for book purchases. I use ILL mostly for academic press books, suggestions for science fiction and fantasy.

seb: yes, I might have put that more sensitively.

What I meant to say is that median real incomes have more than doubled in the last fifty years, and that's reduced demand for book borrowing.

But are you sure that demand for book borrowing has actually decreased? And if so, how much is due to supposedly rising incomes and how much is due to the internet? And what about demand for the other services offered at the library?

Some data here: https://www.thebookseller.com/news/cipfa-stats-show-drops-library-numbers-and-usage

Of course, if you close a bunch of libraries, you have to expect that total library usage will drop as a result....

Sandra Casey

Carly Anne Kreibaum

We lived for 18 years in Hong Kong, where library facilities (for English-language books, anyway) are poor, so anything we wanted to read, we bought.

When we returned to the USA, one of the great boons was the public library system - excellent here in Durham, NC - and my wife now uses it almost exclusively. We still own several thousand books, but our collection is no longer growing exponentially.

She reserves books on line, and I go and pick them up (she doesn't drive any more) in comfort and without hassle. We have the system, mentioned by others above, in which books are readily transferred across several branch libraries, so if our branch doesn't have something, it's only an extra day or two delay before it shows up.

As we graduate to the need for large print books, this facility will be even more appreciated. Yesterday I was in our library and asked if they had a section of large print books. Yes, it was right there where I could have seen it had I been looking. With a sign, in large print, saying "LARGE PRINT."


/me waves to Dr. Ngo

The local branch libraries in London are pretty disappointing compared to the Durham, NC public libraries. They're small, cramped, accessibility is poor, layout is poor, there's not much to them besides books and a community bulletin board, and the selection of books seems pretty poor to me. Digital media costs money to check out, comparable to old VCR rental stores.

London examples: Highgate, Muswell Hill - two *rich* suburbs inside the M25 using awkward old buildings, one a converted firehouse. Finsbury - purpose-built building, upstairs from the local historical society, plenty of room but a disappointingly low density of actual books in that space. Apparently more room for computers, student support, etc.

Each council seems to have a small number of nice libraries, but even there there are fewer of the side-amenities you expect in the USA.

London example - Swiss Cottage might be about as big as the Durham North Regional, but doesn't begin to compare to the Southwest Regional or Main.

Websites and integration with council computing are adequate, and there does seem to be council-wide book reservation and transfer.

Now, as a possible explanation, there are probably 4 of these little inadequate branches within a mile and a half of our house, but we never lived within 3 miles of a branch in Durham, thanks to car culture. London population density is only twice Durham's.

Tom H.:

Do these London libraries have the kind of children's areas you get in American libraries? Storytime for pre-schoolers, that sort of thing? The fact that the Finsbury library is *above* the historical society is startling from an American POV: we'd expect the library to be on the ground floor, easier of access for the very young and old.

Pro Bono:

I don't doubt your info about the UK, but it's not at all true for the US. In fact, library use is UP for millennials, not least because libraries have internet access with no pressure to buy anything.

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