TOPIC GUIDE: Libraries

"There is no longer a need for public libraries"

PUBLISHED: 22 Aug 2014

AUTHOR: Justine Brian

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“We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future”, argued author Neil Gaiman in response to the proposed closing of hundreds of libraries across the UK [Ref: Guardian]. When central government reduced its funding to local authorities in an attempt, it argued, to reduce the national debt, councils across the UK had to reduce their budgets in turn, with library services, among many others, being cut. Some predicted hundreds of libraries would be forced to close [Ref: Guardian], and local and national campaigns were established to save local services [Ref: Independent]. But in reaction to the threat of closures others began to question the role of the public library in modern Britain when, in 2010, just 12.8% of the adult population visited once a month and 39.4% once a year [Ref: BBC News]. But beyond the current debate about funding, what exactly is the purpose of a public library today? In 1850 parliament passed the Public Libraries Act, laying the foundations for local boroughs to establish libraries at public expense, by local taxation, to provide free universal access to literature and information [Ref:]. Today there are over 4000, employing around 20,000 people, and local authorities have a statutory duty to provide public libraries, overseen nationally by central government. But do they fulfill the same role they did in the Victorian era? Have our reading habits changed to the extent that we no longer require a national network of public libraries, instead accessing books and information online and via E-books? Or in the process of using and promoting new technologies, do we miss something vital about the purpose of libraries within society? Can the seemingly limitless information we are able to access on the internet be a replacement for these “cultural and intellectual” centres [Ref: Wall Street Journal]?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

A timeless institution?
The passing of the Public Libraries Act reflected a social trend in the Victorian period for the promotion of education, led in part by campaigns by the Free Library Movement, which sought the ‘improvement of the public’ and educational bodies such as Mechanics’ Institutes, which provided adult education for the working classes. The growth of public libraries took off in the later Victorian period as philanthropists, such as Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie, established the new institutions [Ref: Wikipedia], and by 1900 there were 295 public libraries across Britain. In reaction to the recent campaigns to save local libraries, some commentators accused activists of a sentimental attachment to them, based not on contemporary society’s requirements but of an ideal of what they were. John McTernan, former political advisor to the Labour Party, argued: “Few institutions are timeless. Most reflect the period when they were created, and have to change as society changes if they are to survive. The crisis in our libraries is not because of the “cuts” – it’s because they are needed less” [Ref: Telegraph]. Others concurred that: “Nobody, setting up such public provision now, would dream of building and stocking conventional libraries the length and breadth of the land…it’s not just a question of cash: it’s a question of change” [Ref: Guardian]. With the launch of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited E-book subscription service, offering readers access to 600,000 books [Ref: Telegraph], and “knowledge and storytelling… experiencing a revolution…” with the rise of the E-book [Ref: Publishers Weekly], can it be the case that we still need local libraries? Author of the ‘Horrible Histories’ series, Terry Deary, breaking ranks with many fellow authors, argued that: “…access to literature does not have to come from a building, (or) librarians…it comes electronically. We can give the poor a Kindle which is a hell of a lot cheaper than a library building and they can have access to millions of books; not the couple of thousand in their local libraries” [Ref: Telegraph]. However, those who oppose library closures argue that they provide something unique within communities that cannot be replaced by the proliferation of new technology: “…people know that their communities need a cultural and intellectual centre. What other institution can fill that role in the same way?” [Ref: Wall Street Journal]. The Director of Collections at the New York Public Library argues they exist: “ connect good readers with good books” and can change and develop to reflect readers’ needs today [Ref: Spectator].

The changing face of libraries
Libraries are “…accessible, multi-generational, classless, community spaces providing free access to books, information and an increasing range of services” according to librarian Catherine McNally [Ref: Guardian]. In recent years many libraries have been transformed in an effort to revitalise and integrate them as an essential part of the community, sometimes combined with other local cultural institutions, such as The Beaney in Canterbury [Ref: Canterbury City Council], a combined art gallery, events space and library. The London Borough of Tower Hamlet’s rebranded its libraries as Ideas Stores [Ref: Ideas Stores] which offer health and employment advice in addition to more traditional library services. Many proponents in favour of retaining existing library provision, both in the UK and elsewhere, argue there is a strong economic case for retaining library provision, as they can: “…assist job hunters, education for small business entrepreneurs, orientation for newly arrived immigrants…” [Ref: Globe and Mail]. This lead author Janette Winterson to dub many modern libraries as: “...a community center with books” [Ref: Guardian]. For some, this multi-use development of libraries is too utilitarian a defence. Critics of the trend to move away from the core purpose of a library argue that: “…we’re coming up with all these other ways to try to keep these buildings open. Co-working spaces! Media labs. Art galleries? But it’s impossible to see a world where we keep libraries open simply to pretend they still serve a purpose for which they no longer serve” [Ref: TechCrunch]. Perhaps, some argue: “…the abandonment of the library’s main purpose: books for readers” is why library attendance has suffered [Ref: Telegraph]. 

“Humanity’s past thoughts are my inheritance”
Scottish novelist A L Kennedy argues that libraries are more than information centres, or one-stop shops for local services. Instead, they are repositories of the “lives of others” which help generate an understanding of the world around us: “My first ever means of personal identification was my proof of library membership. I was a citizen of the world because I was a reader….Humanity’s past thoughts are my inheritance - I need them in order to learn how to prosper in the long term” [Ref: BBC News]. Others argue that is an age where we have a seemingly endless supply of information at our fingertips, an “information glut”, libraries help us to find what’s important, making a value judgement on the information housed in them as: “…information has value, and the right information has enormous value” [Ref: Guardian]. And the librarians: “…have specialist knowledge and are trained to find reliable information and evaluate it - a skill as relevant in the digital age as it has always been” [Ref: BBC News]. In response to the idea that online services such as Google effectively replace the need for libraries and librarians, an American librarian argued that: “Everything you see on the library shelf has gone through a tremendous filtering process. Publishers don’t just publish anything. Libraries don’t carry just any old book” [Ref: New York Times]. So are public libraries as we know them past their sell by date? Have new technologies usurped their place, or do they remain repositories of the: “’s cumulative knowledge and heritage” [Ref: WIPO] in a way that Google never can? What value do we place on curation and judgement about the world of knowledge before us, and how best can we be assured of accessing not just information, but good information?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Libraries and Librarianship in Israel

Snunith Shoham Israel Free Loan Association (IFLA) 1999


The end of the library

M.G Siegler TechCrunch 13 October 2013

Liberal whingers are wrong: we should close our libraries

John McTernan Telegraph 20 October 2011

We writers are fighting for the wrong libraries

Anthony Horowitz The Times 3 March 2011

Make way for the new in the book world

Peter Preston Guardian 6 February 2011


Do people need libraries in a digital age?

Christopher Jon Farley Wall Street Journal 12 February 2014

Why our future depends on libraries, reading, daydreaming

Neil Gaiman Guardian 15 October 2013

Future Shelves

Christopher Platt Spectator 30 March 2013

Saving libraries from extinction

Jay Jordan Ha'aretz 8 May 2007


What will become of the library?

Michael Agresta Slate 22 April 2016

What will become of the library

Michael Agresta Slate 22 April 2014


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

The library for Israel and the Jewish world

David Blumberg Jerusalem Post 23 October 2014

The secret recipe for Arab-Israeli peace? Build libraries!

Abbass Abbass & Kate Moran Jerusalem Post 23 October 2014

How to save libraries from e-predators

Claire Fox TES 23 June 2014

Why libraries matter

Chris Heller Atlantic 17 May 2014

Terry Deary: give poor people free e-readers

Hannah Furness Telegraph 15 November 2013

Folding shelves

Economist 23 May 2013

We must protect and reinvent our local libraries

Janette Winterson Guardian 23 November 2012

Guaranteeing access to knowledge: the role of libraries

Ben White WIPO Magazine August 2012

The business case for beautiful libraries

Lisa Rochon The Globe and Mail 12 February 2012

Will libraries become extinct

Erica Friedman Forbes 2 February 2012

As libraries close is that the end of the story?

Christopher Howse Telegraph 15 November 2011

The e-book and its ilk are no replacement for our libraries

Catherine McNally Guardian 17 February 2011

Ebooks and their ilk are no replacement for libraries

Catherine McNally Guardian 11 February 2011

Hands off our libraries

John Henley Guardian 3 February 2011

When a search engine isn’t enough, call a librarian

Jeffrey Selingo New York Times 5 February 2004

The difficulties of public libraries

Ha'aretz 13 July 2001



Beit Ariela


Libraries in crisis

Huffington Post

The Beaney house of art and knowledge

Canterbury City Council

Idea Store

Tower Hamlets Borough Council

Library facts

The reading agency

Libraries in crisis

Huffington Post

Carnegie Library


Are librarians still important?

Kate Rix Scholastic


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


Why libraries matter

Chris Heller Atlantic 17 May 2014

Why libraries matter

Chris Heller Atlantic 17 May 2014

Libraries in crisis

Huffington Post

Libraries in crisis

Huffington Post

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