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Sophie Donaldson: 'A good book, peace and quiet, and it is all free - what's not to like?'

Put down the tablet and the smartphone, and support a new initiative to revive our libraries, writes Sophie Donaldson


Stock picture

Stock picture

Stock picture

It's the second week of January, so have you embarked on a digital detox yet? Are you hoping to unplug, recharge and reset?

More than any other time of year, January is when we take stock of our screen time and vow to have less of it. A week away from the daily grind, in which we are thought to check our phones 55 times a day, throws into sharp relief the detrimental effects of being so digitally dependent.

We resolve to log off earlier, literally unplug more and buy an alarm clock so it's not the phone we reach for first thing in the morning. However, it's about now that those resolutions are swallowed by looming deadlines, early mornings, the back-to-school dash - and suddenly, oh my God, it's somehow April.

Those novels we were given remain untouched on the bedside table and as we scroll with itchy eyes through our feed in an attempt to fall asleep, despite knowing that the blue light emitted from devices makes it even harder to nod off, those digital-free days we envisaged are relegated to next year's resolutions list.

Our dependence on technology has become a malady of modern life. More and more, we yearn for simpler things like the pleasure of losing a few hours to a good book, rather than falling into a Facebook rabbit hole for the whole of a Saturday morning.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if there was a space that was calm and quiet, filled with nooks to nestle into with an absorbing read? How much better if this space was, in fact, crammed with loads of books, for free, with relatively few computers and absolutely nobody jabbering loudly on their phone.

Surely we'd all love an oasis of calm just like this, dotted conveniently near our home or place of work, where we could nip into on a lunch-break or rainy Saturday afternoon, perusing the aisles crammed full of wonderful books you haven't yet read, breathing deeply to inhale the comforting scent of paper.

As it turns out, these places already exist - just about.

With the advent of so much beguiling technology, our public libraries were at risk of being left dormant but a five-year plan from the Department of Rural and Community Development, launched last June, is seeking to almost double active membership by 2022.

Two weeks ago, all existing fines on overdue books were abolished, as was the very concept of late fees. The move is one element of a wider strategy aimed at enticing people back into these public institutions. It is entirely possible the antidote to our increasingly draining digital culture has been there all along.

As a child, I adored going to the library. Being somewhat bookish, I could lose hours trailing and up down the shelves, carefully stockpiling a hoard of books which was painstakingly whittled down to the maximum six titles to be borrowed. As an adult, the only time I have frequented a library was for a college assignment a few years ago, and I haven't been back. It's not down to a lack of reading - it's still my favourite pastime, although sadly I have much less time than my 11-year-old self did to while away the hours with my nose between the pages. As an ardent reader, I'm not alone - book sales have continued to rocket in the past few years, which would indicate there are more eager readers than ever.

So why aren't more of us frequenting libraries?

Certainly smartphones and tablets have diverted our attention from a good old-fashioned paperback, although that trend is now well and truly on the wane.

Another likely factor is the proliferation of cheap books via the internet. As a teenager, I could not have afforded to keep my bookish habit afloat had public libraries not existed.

Now, however, websites such as Amazon and Ebay sell books for less than the price of postage, while other cut-price websites like the Book Depository can operate on the cheap without the overheads of a bricks-and-mortar store while keeping huge amounts of inventory in warehouses.

The vastness of the internet means that almost any title is available - bought secondhand, it can be yours for a pittance.

Perhaps it's an image thing, which is being dealt with in part with the abolition of fees. Libraries, and those who work there, tend to have a sort of fusty image. Hopefully this much-needed intervention will give our public libraries the 21st Century facelift they deserve while retaining their timeless appeal.

Sunday Independent