A FREE taste of an Insight Politics article by writer Nathan Smith.

If you don’t have a Silver level membership yet you are missing out on our Insight Politics articles.

Why I Hate Our Libraries And You Should, Too

I’m the kind of person who visits a gorgeous place like Queenstown and pops into the library just to see what it’s like.

My meander into the Museum of Manuscripts was a good way to kill an hour and I’m glad I went. Although the library was filled with nonsense space-filler books, in the back corner I found a few (locked) cases housing some seriously good volumes. I was so impressed that I sneakily asked if I could be put on the contact list just in case they were ever to be sold. I’d fly down specially.

As usual, the librarians had no real clue what was in those books. If they did know, chances are those books would be quietly buried under the foundations. That’s how good they were. The books were recovered from an older library that was flooded a few years ago. All of them were written before 1910, which is pretty much the only era I read since I distrust any book penned after WWI.

Because of their proximity to the history they were writing about, the authors are by definition dangerous to our glorious communist regime. Their books aren’t seditious or even counter-revolutionary. All they do is show an alternative, better world. And sometimes, particularly after the mirror maze of lies we call the 20th century, a simple alternative can be a powerful weapon.

But it also made me think of why I hate libraries.

I suppose “hate” is too a strong word. It’s more like “loathe entirely” which, needless to say, is why I’ve avoided libraries for years. As with most institutions, we have allowed these places to be hollowed out under a supposedly “humanitarian” goal that libraries should help solve, or at least contain, social problems that go far beyond their original mission.

Actions have consequences, and those consequences are the faint smell of urine down every aisle.

I have a question: Why are homeless people invited into libraries? Because the people who run libraries, including the librarians, can no longer articulate the function of a library in society, so they believe a library is meant to serve every social function anyone can articulate for it.

Are they supposed to be a repository of scholarly knowledge? Of course. Then why are there shelves and shelves of Dean Koontz and Stephen King? Are they a place for students to do research? Then why do libraries rent out Hollywood movies? Are libraries meant to provide access to computers for the underprivileged? Then why are there so many books and so few computers?

I’m sure there is some cultural import to deploying 15 linear metres of shelf space to store the collected works of Danielle Steele but don’t try and tell me this decision was made to cater to consumer behaviour. Really? You’re shoving dross onto the shelves because “that’s what the people want.” How much do you have to hate “the people” to deny them quality literary material?

The decent books are still there. However, in Auckland’s Central Library, you need to register a time, and a librarian must escort you, just to browse the books tucked “safely” in the stack (i.e. the basement). At least in Takapuna Library, the stack is accessible without an appointment. But even there it’s a tiny fraction of the space that seems to prioritise the pointless books, glaring computers and “kids areas.”

Libraries have become the de facto social service provider for the “underprivileged” which is code for the homeless and mentally ill. These people do not need libraries. They need homes. And hospitals. Why don’t homeless people hang around police stations or at the local council HQ? Oh right, because those places would throw them out. But not libraries, they welcome everyone. We have books and computers here, so of course the homeless are welcome to masturbate in the bathrooms. Duh.

People no longer use libraries as a library, they use them as deeply discounted bookstores, video stores and computer cafes. You might say this proves that libraries are important, but you would be wrong. Offering bestsellers and videos is not what libraries are for. That’s what libraries turned into when the public stopped using them for what they were originally for.

Plenty of good people may feel bad if libraries close, but those same people don’t bother putting their money where their “liberal” mouth is. And the reason they don’t is because librarians themselves have no idea what libraries are for either. Sure, they know what they historically used to be for, but what are they for today? If they can’t articulate in 100 words what a library is for, then I assure you, no one else will even bother to try.

What is a library? It is a store of knowledge and information. Specifically, a library is like a convenience store of knowledge. Convenience stores charge higher prices than regular stores precisely because of the convenience. Convenience stores routinely toss out loiterers, lunatics and the homeless because they interfere with the convenience of the paying patrons.

If libraries aren’t going to change, then the only way to save them is to charge money and restrict access. A library should not do what Netflix or iTunes does. If it wants to compete with electronic media then it either must become fully electronic or impose surcharges for the privilege of dealing with physical media. Do you like browsing the stack? Pay for it. Do you like renting crappy movies? Do you like having reading rooms with big tables? Do you like anonymous access to the internet? Pay, pay, pay.

About 75% of Kiwi households pay for some kind of television. That means 75% of households pay at least $30 a month, even though they can get TV for free over the air. If they are willing to spend $360 annually for better TV, then surely, if these same people need libraries, they can pay $50 or $100 per year for access to knowledge.

Pricing barriers matter. It isn’t clear to me that the public agrees with the notion that much of what is on the shelves of most public libraries is a net gain for society. I would argue that the free availability of nonsense books is a detriment for the same reason that junk food is bad not because it’s junk but because it is cheaper than real food. Junk food should be more expensive. The same is true of books. And who gets to decide? Librarians. They should exercise some judgement that extends beyond what gets more people to use the library (which is precisely the kind of cultural lowest common denominator that libraries were set up to thwart).

It makes no sense to argue that libraries should be free. Water and electricity aren’t free. The bus ride to the library isn’t free. So why should access to the books in the building you must pay to get to also be free? What’s ironic is that this basic economics about pricing barriers is probably in the books stored in the stack, and it’s impossible to access those books without paying the tax of an appointment with a librarian. This world really makes me laugh sometimes.

Before you attack me on this pricing point, consider for a second that music stores disappeared because although people still need music in their lives, they didn’t need the store to get it. The same thing is happening to libraries, you just don’t want to accept it. You think libraries are special hallowed places, but you can’t articulate how or why they are special.

The problem is yours. Define a library in a way that is different from any other place and you’ll have a conversation. If you can’t do this, if libraries can’t do this for themselves in a way that makes them more than the entertainment discounter of last resort, then they will vanish as the latest casualty of cultural indifference.

Here’s my articulation: a library should be a place where you can pull any book, video, or CD off the shelf and reading, viewing, or listening to it will make you a better person and a better citizen. It should be a place that is not commercial nor defined by tastes, but rather driven by informed and intelligent judgements.

The implicit message would then be that a library is about culture and knowledge, and access to that kind of material should be unrestricted. But the stuff that is crass, base, frivolous and trivial should be restricted by a price barrier because providing it is a waste of the library’s time and consuming it is a waste of your time. Put a higher cost on junk books, that’s all I’m asking. Right now, Tom Clancy is free to read but it takes precious time to search out James Froude – if you can find him at all.

I unabashedly embrace the consequences of extra friction precisely because a different demographic will begin to frequent libraries again. I want to meet people like me at libraries. I want libraries to once again be the base of strategic friendships that are built from knowledge of the past and ideas for the future. After all, we study the past so that we can take sides in the present.

But I suppose we deserve what’s happened to libraries. The punishment for any society that “democratises” is that high-quality people are forced to be around low-quality people. This is the hidden tax of everyday life. It is cultural death by a thousand cuts, and no one seems to know where the pain is coming from.

Walk into a library tomorrow and tell me I’m wrong about all this. I dare you.

I dream of a world where shelves are full of books that matter, even if it costs me $30/month. I want to tear down the glass cases and release the literary prisoners of the cultural war. Who will join me in this restoration?

If you enjoyed that FREE taste why not subscribe to a SILVER level membership today?

**If you already have a Basic or Bronze Membership upgrade your subscription here.

You will not only get access to Insight Politics articles like the one above but you will also gain access to all our puzzles, SonovaMin and BoomSlang’s fantastic cartoons, and our private members’ forum MyBFD as well as enjoying ad-free viewing.

Become a member now

$25 a month ($6.25 a week) (89c a day)

$300 a year

Subscribe now

Advertorial Content from Sponsors