independent

Monday 21 April 2014

If we have free books, why not free concerts or free theatre?

Ah. Taken to task, though in a most genteel manner, by a couple of ladies over my column on libraries. Not unpleasant, though: rather like sharing a nice warm bath with them.

However, I made a rod for my own back when I said of the new libraries, arts centres and theatres across Ireland: "Most intelligent people would approve of these developments. I am in the dissenting minority of philistines." Hmmm. 'Sceptics' would have been a better word.

The first criticism came from the librarian Aine Beausang, and she was right: it's years since I was in a library. The delectable Alice Taylor joined in the fray last Tuesday, defending the cultural rights of culchies.

Alice: I live three miles from the nearest village, eight from the nearest town, which makes me a bigger culchie than you. The questions I raised last week about the purpose of the free lending-library today remain. And they are questions, not final positions: I do not argue that free libraries should close, but merely wonder about their legitimacy in the 21st century.

Aine wrote: "Public libraries do not compete with the local bookshop, they offer a lot more than the bookshop can ever offer." I see. Not just competition, but state-subsidised uber-competition.

"Where else," she asks, "can you get access to high-speed broadband internet access for free, or for a small minimal charge? Where else can you get access to books on CD, or on tape for the cost of your annual library membership charge, or in many cases, for free?"

That f-word appears three times in her next paragraph about library services for children. Of course, they're not free, but are all paid for by a creature who finally makes its appearance in the last word of Aine's letter: "The benefits of a public library to a community are enormous, and far outweigh the cost to the taxpayer."

Now, only a baboon would deny the usefulness of free libraries to children. But why should any well-paid person like myself have their literary tastes paid for, including author royalties, by the taxpayer? Meanwhile, the bookshop down the road has to match the range of taxpayer-funded facilities being provided free of charge at the library, and make a profit, a concept about as foreign to a state-run lending library as toilet paper is to a fish.

I'm not making a case against lending libraries here, merely asking questions, and without knowing the answers. If free books, why not free theatre, free concerts and free dance? If the taxpayer can enable me to read Cecilia Ahern or Jeffrey Archer free of charge, why should not that same generous fellow underwrite my tastes in Bach, Puccini and Shakespears?

Yes, you can argue there are differences; but there are similarities. And of course, everyone can cite the impoverished orphan with leprosy, whose life was transformed by the local library, and who wore his first ever pair of shoes when he collected his Nobel Prize for Literature.

All excellent stuff. But it is a poor argument that declares that the only way of enabling poor children to have access to free books is by allowing me to have free books also.

"Where else, for free, can you consult, for free, reference books that most people would not have at home?"

F-words Aine. Where else? The internet, of course, where the entire world is increasingly available. So, why the reference library, paid for by the taxpayer, when every home (apart from that of Huck Finn, who is always trotted out for the sake of these arguments)?

To be sure, Alice makes irrefutable points about the social function of libraries (though I was never closer to an axe murder in my library-frequenting days than when people put them to that gregarious purpose). But many towns in Ireland now have new libraries, arts centres and theatres, all staffed by permanent employees of the state. Is it unreasonable to wonder if all this space is actually being well-used? Art is not merely a minority interest in any community, but only a tiny minority of that minority have artistic skills which will be of interest to others. Yet I suspect that we have built scores of buildings dedicated to the 'arts', when there are not enough good painters to cover the hanging space within, or artists to perform often enough to justify the construction costs. Meanwhile, there are probably many full-time provincial employees of the culture-industry, who are feverishly (or not) trying to work out what exhibition or theatrical production they can mount in a year's time, without, during the run, feeling rather like Captain Boycott in the fever ward of a TB sanatorium in Coventry.

Public lending libraries were the original VEC: the great gift of the Victorians, Edwardians and Carnegie. I merely wonder if, like mission halls, telephone-kiosks and bandstands, their day is done. Should the State still be providing its citizens with subsidised books, galleries and coffee shops? And I finish with two questions to my amiable bathmates.

What will inevitably happen, as the recession deepens, and people choose to borrow books for free, rather than buy them the local bookshop? And, who's got the soap?

kmyers@independent.ie

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