Wednesday 3 July 2019

Books for free

I recently read this article  by Dawn Finch, an author, a children’s librarian and a campaigner for the rights of authors. It's about how books by celebrity authors are damaging children’s publishing for writers, bookshops and most of all children themselves and every word of it rings true.
One thing that struck me was her description of how children use libraries:

Where else can your child stand in the midst of hundreds of different titles and grab whatever catches their eye for free? Where else can your child try loads of different things until they work out which genre suits them?

This so exactly matches my experience of using a library was as a child and an avid reader. My mother was a great reader but had no interest in the owning of books. She’d buy us books as presents occasionally, but every week we’d go to the library to change our books. It was, as Dawn writes, an experience like no other to stand in front of the shelves and know I could pick out anything I wanted. If I enjoyed a book, great, I could come back and borrow it again or look for other books by the same author. If I didn’t, no loss at all. These are the kinds of choices that don’t come along all the time. It felt mouth-wateringly greedy in the best possible way.

I did take my own children to the library, but not with the same regularity that my mother did. Partly this was because I hadn’t figured out at the time how valuable an experience choosing your own books was for a child and because not having owned many books as a child I wanted my children to own their own books. But it was also because our small rural library was open for such very short hours at such very odd times that I was just never able to keep the schedule in my head. There is nothing like taking your children to the library and finding it closed two or three times in a row to put all of you off going. I’m sorry my kids didn’t share my library experience (though I did help improve their school library, so they did have a different valuable library experience).

In a library, those books that are front and centre in a bookshop –the new, the celebrity, the best-selling – are not being shoved in your face. In a library, you only get your hands on what is brand new by looking through the returned books before they get reshelved or by putting your name on a list for the latest titles. What you may find are books you’ve never heard of, books you didn’t know you were looking for, books by favourite authors that you’d forgotten about or didn’t know they’d written. These are the books many publishers seem to have dismissed as having no value, and it is true that since library services have seen such swingeing cuts, sales to libraries may not be worth considering as far as publishers are concerned. Of course, to needy authors they’re worthwhile: when you take one of these backlisted titles off the shelf, they get a little Public Lending Right money, and the knowledge that someone thinks that book they sweated over years ago is still worth reading.

These days I am guilty of being one of those people who think libraries should be open and properly resourced for everyone but who rarely goes to the library themselves. When I do so, it is usually for research and I'm afraid the largest library available near my rural home almost always lets me down. But I’ve been thinking that I should make the effort to start using the library regularly for reading for pleasure purposes. I'm intrigued to find how it might alter what I am reading, and to be honest, my book-buying habit is currently not really in line with my income. I will, of course, have to keep buying books by my friends and as presents (because what’s better?), but for the rest, I foresee a bit of backlist diving.

I’ll keep you posted.

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