I was reading a contentious blog post by John Redwood, a Conservative politician in the UK from a government that is closing >500 public libraries. While I disagree with all his ill-thought out points, I was interested in his views of the book stock.
I lingered over the non fiction shelves. The books seemed oriented to middle class hobbies like antiques and foreign travel. I guess the book buying had been well judged to cater for the demand of a fairly affluent local community that said it wanted a public library.
Some defenders of every public library imply that they are for a different clientele. They conjure images of children from homes living on low incomes developing a passion for reading serious books borrowed from the local library. The library is seen as a force for self improvement and the pursuit of knowledge. I fear that in many cases this is no longer true, if it ever was.
To be sure public libraries have moved far from the Carnegie conception of a place whereby the poor could better themselves with the tools to educate themselves. Those tools being only non-fiction works with which to learn or enhance a skill or trade. In Australia the first public library founded by the great Sir Redmond Barry also had no fiction. Fiction was also unavailable in the first mechanics institutes. While fiction was available in the minimal number of Australian public libraries (until post WW2) it was also provided by subscription libraries (even unto the 1930s) in Australia.
I have no problem with public libraries providing fiction it is what people want and expect.
I do however think there is a point to be made about the non-fiction collections in most public libraries I have been in (and that’s quite a few).
It is no surprise that Redwood, found little to interest him as every public library collection here and there (as they should) express generally the makeup of the clientele and of the library staff, both of which are overwhelmingly female (see the ABS stats). That non-fiction collections are blessed in the areas of craft, cookery, crime, self-help, child care, travel and health is therefore no surprise.
But there is little for the young person keen to learn more than pastimes, hobbies and cures (have a look at the size of the 500s as opposed to the 600s shelves). But then that is why I suppose we have the Internet.
Why is this a problem you ask, well it may not currently be a problem in Australia which has high levels of employment, but in the US and UK where there is mass unemployment (and libraries fighting for funding) libraries need to be helping people by providing tools to learn and grow and find jobs. Offering the unemployed hobby books is not useful.