Libraries are barriers to reading
100 Classic Books on Nintendo
Who would have thought? I’ve just seen the ‘100 Classic Books’ title advertised on prime time TV, just after Big Brother, for the Nintendo DS. Brain Training was a hinge product. It changed the entire games market. Nothing will ever be the same again. But this is even bolder.
Of course, the traditionalists will be waving their reading glasses in horror, as usual. But to turn books into a fetish is simply to deny learning and access by those who need it most. Real books are great, but let’s not confuse the medium with the content. Just as journalists and newspaper owners fail to realise they’re in the ‘news’ not the ‘newspaper’ business, so book fans and publishers fail to realise that this is about reading, not books. Books are simple a piece of technology. A damn good piece of technology, but one that has some strengths and lots of weaknesses. In time its weaknesses will outweigh its current strengths.
Books destroy trees, need to be expensively transported and stored in expensive libraries and retail outlets. Sure they’re portable, but only one or two at a time, not a 100 or 1000? You can’t search them, and they’re difficult to bookmark, highlight, hyperlink or comment without defacing the product. In time, and it may be a long time, books will be read on screens.
Let’s face it, 100 books for less than £20 is 20p per book and the advantages are portability, storage and bookmarking. William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, R L Stevenson, Jack London, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Jonathan Swift, George Elliot, Edgar Allen Poe, Lewis Carroll, Jules Verne and lots more, available on a games console. It’s all good.
This is the shape of things to come, just a tiny glimpse of the possibilities in learning. Nintendo have taken a leaf out of Amazon’s and Sony’s book, with Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader both available with massive downloadable libraries. My brother-in-law, a busy man, who’s always on the move, swears by the latter.
We can now see where this can lead us, or more specifically lead our children. Why lock up knowledge and the ability to learn in libraries and schools, when we can publish and distribute it at marginal cost to everyone. As long as we publish in open standards, the devices will just keep on coming. Leave the device design to the experts, like Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun, I believe that Moore's Law will produce $10 devices by 2020, possibly a lot earlier – we just need to focus on free content.
Fill their boots with books
In my book, this is a groundbreaking movement in education. It is not beyond the wits of government to be bold here and recommend an entire ‘digital canon’ for every child in the country.
Take 1000 or 10,000 books, all of the BBC Bitesize content (we the public have paid for it, surely we own it), lots of e-learning, at all levels, language learning, and give it away to every schoolchild for free. Just hand over the entire canon, all GCSE and A-level subjects and lots of juicy extras. The cost would be a tiny fraction of the overall education budget. In fact, I think it can be done at no cost at all.
Libraries as expensive warehouses
How? This may sound like a contradiction – encourage reading by closing the most costly libraries. There are lots of them. The cost of borrowing a book in some public libraries is greater than the cost of the book itself. This may be hard to believe, but it’s true. Divide the actual cost of the library by the number of borrows per year – it’s shockingly high. I don’t mean all libraries or university libraries, just costly public libraries.
Public libraries are no longer encourage reading. In the age of digital abundance, and cheap books, they’re an expensive obstacle to reading. Libraries spend inordinate amounts of time trying to fine people and recover books that people just find too inconvenient to take back. They stop reading from libraries as they criminalise readers. Librarians have become debt collectors.
My local library in Brighton is a beautiful, frightfully expensive, award winning building, but inside is a scrappy warehouse of cheap shelving and a very sparse book collection. Many libraries are just like this, more like bad second-hand book or charity shops. They can’t hope to match the demand-led approach of a real bookshop.
What the planners had to do, to make the idea fly, was include a CD and DVD lending facility. In other words it had to become a Blockbuster to survive. This is the cul-de-sac that the modern library faces, as in the age of digital distribution and downloads; it’s a service that is heading towards vanishing point.
It wouldn’t be so bad if they actually took a business-like view of the world. This New Year I stepped into the local library in my parent-in-laws’ home town, in Scotland. The library had fewer customers than staff, and I simply wanted to use the internet facility they advertised in the window. I was told that I had to be a local resident. Even the offer of payment was rejected.
Then there are the book wardens – sorry librarians. Let’s be honest, they’re mostly just warehouse workers ordering, stacking, handing out, taking in and stacking again. Yet they cost the earth. As graduates (in stacking?) they demand salaries way beyond what the job requires. And many are seriously deficient on the customer care side. The main cost of any public library is the inflated salary costs. This is why the borrowing cost per book in many libraries has become absurd.
OK, I’m sure there’s a few tramps out there and those earnest parents who drag their children along every Saturday, when they’d much rather be playing football or playing computer games, who’ll be seeing this as an affront to civilisation, so I’ll try another tack.
Close down a whole swathe of libraries and encourage, even subsidise, the big bookshops, such as Borders or Waterstones, to expand their activities. They have all the best sites, good coffee, helpful and knowledgeable staff, and better book collections. Give us all some tax breaks on buying books.