Tuesday, March 30, 2010

At Least They're Not Burning Them.

Instead they're giving up buying them! Well I suppose that's something.

Apparently the Western Australian State Government - in the interests of saving money, I suppose - has decided to cut the amount it allocates for buying books for public libraries. The way the system works in Western Australia is that local councils provide the infrastructure, staff and maintenance for public libraries while the State Government funds book purchases. In a cost cutting exercise which is hard to fathom it's been reported they have cut that allocation from the 2008-2009 financial year amount of $10.8 million to $7.95 million in the current financial year with a proposal to cut it to $6.5 million in the 2010-2011 financial year. You can read the article here.

To me this seems to be a decision that is totally out of touch with reality. Public libraries provide an invaluable service that the internet, useful as it is, cannot. For all the talk of books dying out, the truth is that libraries are one of the best ways of encouraging research and providing an inexpensive source of fiction reading. One of the most valuable aspects of library research - and something the internet cannot provide - is a knowledgeable librarian to direct you to what you need.

Books are expensive and for most of us there is no other option but to borrow them. If I had the money I would fill my house with books but I don't have that sort of income. As it is when I read a library book that delights me I do go and buy it (if it is still available) - just ask Pisces about the ever growing bookcases in the house - but there is no way I could buy and store every book I've read through the library.

Libraries have been a part of my life from childhood when a free lending library opened near my home. My children joined the library long before they could read, around the age of two (once they were past the chewing on books stage). They went to Story Time every week and the craft session that followed. They started borrowing - or more precisely I borrowed on their behalf - books for bedtime stories. As they got older they made their own selections and used the library for research into school projects. As a former teacher I find it difficult to imagine a child successfully passing through the education system without using a library. Then there are the old or disabled who rely on books being brought to them by the library or who need large print or talking books. Libraries serve all these people.

I know that part of the justification will be that books for e-book readers will mean 'real' books will fade away. That may well eventually be the case but at the moment e-books are rare beasts. Even if you have a reader the list of available titles is very limited. Then there's the sheer impracticality for some readers. I don't know how you feel about handing a three year old an expensive piece of electronics to read about 'The Hungry Caterpillar' or the 'Cat in a Hat' but I'd be worried and even more I'd be sad that they were missing out on the tactile interactive experience that books provide.

There seems to be an attitude developing in this state that unless you can put a monetary value on something it's really not worth anything. We're continually told we are a 'booming' state but the usual result of an economic boom has been to foster the arts usually by a combination of private and government funding. In the Gold Rush days of the 19th century, soon after a permanent town was established, a theatre would be in place, or even an opera house in the larger towns, and money was as likely to be donated for art prizes as for building sports grounds because this part of society was seen as valuable and to be encouraged just as much as the more pragmatic and necessary infrastructure.

Cutting funding for library books may seem a far cry from this but it is not. When you limit access to books you also cut the access of a proportion of the population to education and awareness of a wider culture. This means those with the least economic options to obtain books and alternative electronic equipment are prevented, as absolutely as if they were physically locked out, from developing and growing to their full potential.

The amount of money being 'saved' here is nothing in the grand scheme of things and the harm it will do is irreparable for generations.

No comments: