Thursday, October 26, 2006

Public Libraries Are Important

In today's Times journalist Helen Rumbelow argues for the replacement of public libraries with millions of 'personal' ones. The fact is, she says, that books are a lot cheaper to buy than in the past and with the Internet information is far more easily accessible with a few mouse clicks than a trip to your local library. Her article (,,1072-2421353,00.html) also points out that book-borrowing has declined by 40% in the past decade.

I love books and I love libraries. As a child I would spend hours after school reading in them. When I worked as a volunteer teacher in Eastern Europe I frequently visited the neighbourhood's library as a place where I knew I could sit and read and think in peace and quiet and for free. My mother visits her local library most days to catch up on the day's news and to browse community event notices among other things.

The fact is that a lot of people can't afford to buy books and build up their own 'personal library'. The internet is a remarkable innovation, but it's not without its flaws: it can be difficult to navigate, is filled with a lot of junk information that isn't peer-reviewed or fact-checked in any way, and it costs money. There's still a fairly large percentage of the UK population who don't have a computer or internet access at home.

Then there's the fact that bookshops are subject to commercial pressures that public libraries aren't - bookshops stock what titles they think they can sell and ignore the rest. Mass-market fiction and self-help manuals take precedence over most kinds of reference books, classic literature or poetry for example. Public libraries on the other hand can stock the widest range of books: browsing the average library shelf can be a fascinating experience.

Perhaps most importantly of all, public libraries in every high street - rich and poor, modern or not, urban and rural - remind us of the fact that learning is for everyone and that it is as much a community activity and interest as it is a personal one. A mind is best used when it is linked up with many others.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, my own local library which I had very fond memories of and which I joined at the age of 4 and regularly visited, spending hours reading in it and which was a building over 100 years old has been knocked down to make way for a square slab of mass-housing for immigrants. The library itself has been relegated to a small stock shop-size haord at the local shopping centre. It is a disgrace but something that couldn't be avoided as I've yet to meet a person who thinks it was a bad idea to get rid of it!

I do have my personal library as well with a thousand odd books but that is rapidly being reduced as I have to keep on moving out -

Anonymous said...

How powerful is this person that wrote the article in the first place? I don't believe public libraries are in danger. Apart from your's rehan, sorry to hear that.

elaine said...

I have a particularly large interest in this topic, since the library pays my wage. So many elderly customers come in just for some social interaction, we spend a lot of our time just talking to people, an invaluable service which would be sorely missed.

Anonymous said...

Libariries are the last bastion of bias-free information in the U.S. You can go to the bookstore, look at documentaries on TV or surf net or go to school, but you will never find a more objective place to learn than in the local public library. I take my three year old daughter to the library on a regular basis to introduce her to the world of books and information. I want to instill in her as early as possible the joy of learning-it is the only real property we have, and the most valuable-and the and we have there a wide selection of stories to choose from, many of which I have never heard of before. I used to work in a bookstore, and I can verify that what you see on the shelves is what sells in that area. A few days ago I suggested to my cable company that they create an on demand libary that people could access at home-digital audio and video could be provided with education in mind and many people would be exposed to information that they might not otherwise be able to access-for example, the disabled, and those not wealthy enough to purchase a computer and an internet connection.We need to remember that the use of our imagination is only way we progress. I don't think Einstein, Lincoln or even Socrates would have appreciated most of the learning environments that are available to our children right now. Thinking, like reading, requires peace and quiet. What's the common reprimand in a library? Shh...

Z-Prime said...

Hey Daniel,
Do you believe theomatics has any validity to be heavily studied. I don't know much hebrew or greek and maybe that's why I don't see the nonvalidity/validity in the practice. Any help would be great. Thanks for your time.

Anonymous said...

The libraries here in Seattle often close on regular days as they run out of money, and need to trim the budget somehow. Makes me sad.

B. Mateo

YellowChopLucid said...

I'm quite interested in the "living Books" concept in Sweden where you may hire from the library for 45 minutes a person IE a Lesbian, a Muslim, a Transvestite etc and have a conversation with them over a cup of coffee. It's supposed to have been really successful and a breakdown in stereo types. Would the lovely Mr Tammet consider becoming an open book for an afternoon?. Daniel, I was born on the 27/12/1976 You don't like 6, I know... what is your take on numerology? Could you tell me what colour my birthday is?

Anonymous said...

I've been in a public library once. I live in a small town where there is no library (except the libraries in the schools), or in any of the towns surrounding mine. Where I live in the U.S. is considered "farm country"

I spend a lot of money on books, I have a couple that I have never been able to finish reading because I dislike them. So I put a lot of thought into the books that I buy, and I've learned to easily recognize styles of writing that I don't like and just what I'd find interesting in general.

Anonymous said...

I believe public libraries are essential and a must have in every community.

Yes the internet does have its benefits and yes you can find more articles, books, magazines etc on the internet then you can in a library.

But how many of use have the internet, how many of use actually have a computer. Well about 15% of people in the whole world have a computer and only 3% have an internet connection.

So pretty much everyone out there who a) cannot afford to build their own extensive library and b) do not have an internet connection will suffer.

It would be a shame to see public libraries torn down and I'd surely miss them.

B J Damerell said...

I heard you on Radio Kent on Wednesday and was absolutely riveted to the spot. We have an autistic grandson and lots of what you said to John Warnett hit home very quickly. I spoke to the librarian today in our small branch and she said that you had 'ducked' the question on the calculation. I suggested that the question wasn't worded correctly as John didn't ask for the answer. He ask if you could multiply two numbers (can't remember which ... but I bet you can!) together. Your reply was "Yes". As far as I am concerned that was the correct answer. I have emailed this point to JW so it may come out tomorrow.
Good luck for the future and I am now waiting for the library to tell me that your book is in.

Anonymous said...

Hi Daniel

I just have to say i watched your documentary two years ago when i was in a severe schizophrenic breakdown, and i got to watching it every day (as i did with alot of things at that time that left an impression on me)
And i was just curious how come you cant go through Pi to ininity? Or can you?

Im sure i will soon buy yur book, and im glad that i found your site



Anonymous said...

Libraries are so much more than just books, places for learning and research.
Borrowing may be lower than in te past, but there are so many other services offered besides just book borrowing. A meeting place or just a special place for reading and contemplating. Or Story time for children. Luckily our libraries in Australia do not seem to be under any threat, they are mostly expanding.

apoetgirl said...

i believe that pubilc librarys
are in deed in danger of becoming things of the past. and not the future.
i have found memories of my library in a small town growing up with disablities
it was a need i had to read a book and disappear and contect with some thing biger than me
i would spend hours there under a a desk i spent the best part of my learning and in my special ed
class under a desk and i learned
how to read body language there down.
so ya i think that librarys
are will soon disapper do to the computer and with visual librarys
i would agree

Renegade said...

Even though my personal library is quite extensive, I still enjoy browsing at the public library.

There are great people to meet and titles that I would NEVER own, yet enjoy borrowing or referencing.

Public libraries should be embraced by all!

Please visit Renegade's BS

B J Damerell said...

Hi Daniel,
Public libraries are, indeed, important ... especially as mine has got me a copy of your book so quickly. Once I have read it I shall probably get my own copy for future reference. I picked it up this morning, late, and I can't put it down! If you find my blog on you will see my thoughts on our local library. They are making sure that it gets to the attention of the central library! Perhaps we can make a difference.

Anonymous said...

We have no library where I live, but none the less I enjoy a good book whenever possible. A friend and I are doing a boigraphy on The Real Rain Man (Or Men). I was fasinated by your ability, I'm only in ninth grade so to watch anyone do math that quickly is simple mind blowing.

I do so ever hope you read this, I want to show that even 14 year olds have an interest in things way over their heads. That's why I wanted to do my Biography on well you and Kim Peek, Matt Savage and a few others, people who no one has ever heard of in my town, but are the greatest people I can think of.

I realise this has nothing to do with libraries, but I figured the two topics go hand in hand in many ways. I wish you Many happy days.

apoetgirl said...

books are a good thing
even the odd ones can be great
like letters to a young poet
do you know this one?

Anonymous said...

I looked up "Born on a blue day" in the national library database (I can do this online, from home) and it turns out they have it :)
I just ordered it .. it should be an interesting read, especially since I was diagnosed with asperger just two weeks ago.

Anonymous said...

Daniel, it's interesting that you find beaches and supermarkets overstimulating. In my mind, beaches and supermarkets are easy as pi. (;-)) Then again, for people like me, there's the epiphany of complex things...such as James Joyce intends in "The Dubliners".

I think epiphany is pleasurable, also born of complexity, and that it seems to come of holding many relationships together at once. In my mind, the complexity of a sand beach resolves easily owing to the ways that my sensibilities and experience find meaning in objects and events are perceived, recognized and related. In my mind, beaches, like nature in general, are endlessly complex, and effortlessly pleasurable, but they don't usually produce epiphany. My human nature somehow resolves that complexity automatically. Epiphany is different; as complexity accumulates, its meaning converges abruptly and occurs high in my consciousness.

If you've read Joyce's stuff (I suppose so), does literal epiphany or any other kind of sudden insight present itself to you? And if it does, particularly in regard to James Joyce's epiphany by design, could you describe your introspective sense of it? I suppose you must experience epiphanies of complex things fairly often, perhaps more acutely than normal people.

Or, maybe not. That would be interesting to know.

Anonymous said...

A long question:

Regarding your impressive command of language (at last count, seven plus Manti), your affinity for libraries, and the impressive feat of leaning Icelandic in a week, Daniel Strack on symbolic reasoning and cumulative understanding:

"At times we are forced to choose between equally compelling yet unrelated propositions. This sort of situation might be encountered by a general in war who must weigh the importance of battle objectives against the cost in terms of the lives of soldiers entrusted to him, or if we are forced to choose from many potentially useful items when packing a small suitcase for a trip. Symbolic reasoning may be a help or hindrance in these times when conflicting analogies both show merit. Nevertheless, when the type and breadth of human cognition is taken into consideration, it may be understood that not only is symbolic manipulation responsible for subtle reasoning in specific instances, but also when this sort of recoding efficiency happens at multiple levels, the cumulative understanding is likely to increase exponentially rather than simply “piling up” as would be the case with raw sensory experiences. This exponential increase in synthetic knowledge is often taken for granted, but in fact the subtle functions which allow for the "compounding" of rationality may be what separates humans from animals, part and parcel of what causes Homo sapiens to define their own existence in terms of sapience."

Are you as insighful (or more insightful, perhaps) in apperceptions of the meanings of words, pages of words and whole books as you demonstrate exceptional numeracy?

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine a world without libraries. I love to read and while I do have a personal library of several hundred books, I can't afford to buy everything I'm interested in. I also don't have the physical space in my home to keep everything I read!

Libraries have always been a huge part of my life and I know that no matter how stressed I am feeling, I can walk into a library and I immediately feel calmer.

I need to find a local group devoted to the preservation of libraries and see how I can get involved. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

Magne said...

If everyone should have a thousand books or more at their home, the forests of the earth would be long gone.
Public libraries are an important cultural delivery system that introduce people of all ages to the wonder of literature.

Anonymous said...

I lived in La Serena, Chile for a year, in 1997. It is a small city located in the north. I was disappointed that their library was not what I was used to in Canada. The attendant treated me with suspicion as I browsed the shelves. I got the message that I was not allowed to do that, as he came over to correct me. I wondered if they thought that I was going to steal the books. The books were falling apart and there weren't very many. I wondered why this was so and I felt sad and disappointed. I know what a treasure and joy it is to be able to have access to the books and resources in libraries in Canada and I wish that it could be the same for all the people of Chile.

Anonymous said...

Not only that but staring at a computer has the tendency to give headaches and have known to cause eye problems. Having all of your books on a computer would be horrible, there is nothing like a book.
Replacing libraries with personal libraries would be terrible...its sort of like saying that being a single on an island would be better then living in a social community. Obviously we need to encounter new ideas from outside sources in order to grow.
Public libraries are indeed a vital part of keeping humanity on the road towards a better be without them would be more then just a disservice would be an atrocity. Books are powerful...they provide knowledge which incites learning.

Anonymous said...

Agree w/you--that Times writer seems to have forgotten that libraries are for everyone and not everybody is as well off as her.

Whenever ppl mention that they need access to some media and can't or won't buy it--i tell them they can get their movie/cd/literature fix at the library--it's so easy!

if library usage is going down the solution is to attract more patrons not eliminate libraries

rehan--does it matter who the housing was for? i'm sure the immigrants didn't request the library be reduced in size

as much as i enjoy libraries--don't forget that ppl are more important!!

Anonymous said...

For kids from deprived backgrounds and from bad homes - and there are quite a few of those in Britain! - libraries are places to escape to, somewhere to study in peace.

I also like libraries. But I like old fashioned libraries with wooden floors, wooden bookshelves, wooden tables, and subdued lighting. I don't like bright, modern libraries with PC monitors all around. I want somewhere I feel is a world within a world - a Land of Nania, so to speak.

The author of that article is clearly writing from a purely selfish perspective.

I have 24/7 access to the Internet, but I would love a warm, inviting library near me with a good selection of books and journals. On a dreary, rainy day - and we get plenty of those in Britain! - it would be a nice place to pass some time.

We are physical beings that evolved to live in - and enjoy! - a physical environment. Virtual reality should supplement and enhance our physical reality, not replace it!