Terry Deary's Libraries: A Response

There's quite the storm brewing in the world of libraries.

Terry Deary, who you'll probably know if you're British, and probably won't if you're not, has caused quite a to-do with his recent statements about the future of libraries - namely, that there isn't one.

Photo by Jeffrey Beall
A bit of background: in the UK local councils are facing increasing budget constrains and cuts, and in efforts to save money have been systematically turning to libraries as something to cut. It's not an intellectual war, it's not a ideological disagreement - it's just about doing the best they can with the limited funds they have, and seeing libraries as a bit of a drain.

Reaction has been very strong and pretty effective, for the most part. Local groups and influential authors, thinkers, and doers have leaped to libraries' defense, pointing to their role in child education, social and cultural growth, adult education, etc., etc. The image of libraries as just as place for books is outdated, and to close them is to remove a vital social leveler providing access to resources, education and information that not everyone has at home.

Terry Deary's argument is something new, though. Rather than see libraries as a cultural thing, or as a part of the education system (itself not a thing he particularly cherishes), Deary seems to take umbridge that libraries provide books for free.

Talking to The Guardian newspaper, Deary explained:

"If I sold the book I'd get 30p per book. I get six grand, and I should be getting £180,000. But never mind my selfish author perception – what about the bookshops? The libraries are doing nothing for the book industry. They give nothing back, whereas bookshops are selling the book, and the author and the publisher get paid, which is as it should be. What other entertainment do we expect to get for free?"

Now, in the UK, UK authors get paid when you borrow their book. It's called Public Lending Right and it's a good thing. As far as I can tell, Deary's argument is that then 6p or so he gets when you borrow his books is way below the royalties he'd get if you bought it. Why, libraries are undercutting bookstores. They're rivals, and they're cheating!

No. Firstly, to see libraries as just big rooms with books in is to ignore to the point of idiocy their role in local communities working with children, mothers, families, adults, the elderly - you name it - to run courses, workshops, act as information hubs, and to provide space to work and read. In a way the economic argument does have some sense in it - libraries do provide books for free - but the sense is simply this: is makes sense to make reading material available to those who can't buy it themselves. It also makes sense to make it available to those who could buy it themselves, and may well do later on. But to see the libraries as bookshops's competitors? To think they've had their day? No.

Public library on Henley Street. Stratford, England.
Photo by ell brown

When I moved to America, do you know what I did? I registered at the library. I've used it. I've bought books that I first read there. One of the woes of living in Japan was not having an English language library to hand. I used the Birmingham library system growing up, and the Bristol one when I was a student.

There may well be a larger conversation to be had in Britain about the role of libraries and where the funds should come from - in fact, it would probably help boost their public image and help correct some misunderstandings about what they are and what the do. But to support their demise simple because they have the gall to give things away for free is bordering on miserly and ignores the real-world uses of libraries for so many people.

If my books ever made it to UK or U.S. libraries, I would be overjoyed. If I got paid for it? More so. if I didn't? I really do think I would be OK. I know what getting children to read means. It means they become readers throughout their life - and that is something you can't put a price on.


  1. The perception that 'the arts' (into which libraries are often classified) are some sort of optional extra for a society is one that is only pervaded by those who have alternative sources of access to such things, other than the free ones given by the state. In the UK the closure of libraries is only seen as acceptable by an elite who can afford to buy any book that takes their fancy, who can afford to sit in a coffee shop on their laptop rather then relying on free internet access at a library, who have never had to truly rely on a state service in their lives. There is an understanding that the facilities which libraries provide can somehow be magically duplicated elsewhere, by the private or charitable sectors, and that if they are not then they cannot have really been necessary in the first place.

    Notwithstanding that Terry Deary's comments are selfish, they are also economically flawed. He deserves to be paid for is work, which he can only achieve if people have heard of him and want to know more. Libraries do this FOR FREE as far as his personal expenditure is concerned, and they pay a nominal sum in royalties as well. I cannot think of a better deal for any profession wanting advertising. His comments smack of an infantile need for attention and should be dismissed like any children's tantrum would be.

    Making readers out of people, and providing skills in research and ways of learning, are invaluable skills, and libraries do all that and more. As a representation of a society which truly understands itself and the communities within it, they are worth defending until the very end.

    1. All good points. I think your first is the most important, still - that what libraries do on a day to day basis can be overlooked by people who would never need to do those things. The exposure and support libraries give to authors is an integral part of the literary machine.

  2. Good greetings, dear lad. I think I'm going to write on this too, since part of the context of his remarks is the announcement of library closures in Sunderland - our shared birthplace. My folks back home live barely 300m from one of the local libraries and it's a building I've been glad of when attempting PhD work from home. It's also one that, confessedly, I've neglected in favour of the central city library, which is rarely empty. So one defence I would make for libraries is their studious environment, which is barely available elsewhere.

    The other (as someone who participates in the History of the Book seminar in Leicester) is that I don't believe we should be forced into electronic reading just because the technology now exists. He barfs on at length about this too, but I for one find electronic reading frustrating. It's linear, and limited. How does he suppose we re-create 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar' on a Kindle? Case closed. ;)

  3. I really like things you have to say. In general it feels a little sad with how much reading is changing. If the free books are slowly being lost and the actual books themselves are being replaced, then where do those who have a passion but perhaps not the income go to? The libraries are great sources for those who love literature and writing. It's hard to make a fair comment about the royalties that concern the writer with libraries. There sounds like there could be very fair arguments on both points. But there still should be a fair, cheap/free way for books to be read for everyone. I really don't want to see the desire to read ever dwindle and libraries are great supports for that.

    Btw: I nominated you for the Liebster Award! Please claim it! :)