The Data Does Not Have to Have the Last Word — A Response to The Telegraph’s McTernan
Former librarian turned political commentator for The Telegraph, John McTernan, recently published a highly controversial article in the same imprint titled Don’t mourn the loss of libraries — the internet has made them obsolete. His article is in response to a recent BBC analysis of compiled data on UK libraries.
Shame on McTernan for his lack of commitment (even as a former librarian) to supporting libraries as a bulwark and bastion for culture and democracy.
The first thing to draw attention to in McTernan’s piece is the emphasis that he places on the public’s shift to commercially licensed publications over the use of libraries — citing the uptick in sales for titles from platforms such as Amazon, Alibris and Abebooks. There is less of a need to argue about whether this trend is valid, but rather to use the trend as an opportunity to challenge the public to consider what is at stake in this exchange. What is at stake is both individual and common ownership in our cultural development. What we increasingly lose as we turn to the “walled gardens” of today’s commercial publishing platforms is the assurance of an owned and controlled “library”. A territory that we can stake a claim to. Our new, strictly ephemeral, electronic media come and go at the whims of copyright and the publishers. Their existence and access is not based on our vibrant individual or communal exchanges and the possession of physical holdings. This is a problem that our societies need to get educated to and make a conscious decision to reverse by diverting our individual spending from licensed ebooks to advocating for tax increases to support local libraries’ physical holdings.
McTernan would also have his readers unthinkingly equate libraries with their lowest common denominator. Which is to boil libraries down to mere access brokers for information. In his view, now that we have the internet in our pockets, what meaningful role could the library of the 21st Century possibly play? Aside from the ridiculous conclusion that smartphones are keys to the liberation of knowledge, let’s also go ahead and dismiss the fundamental role that libraries play in bringing local communities together in socially progressive ways — syncretizing the mere access to knowledge together with impactful library programming and tangible services. Libraries are integral to enriching our democracies in less ephemeral, more interpersonal ways. They provide a free, deliberative and engaging space that no smartphone can take the place of.
Finally, McTernan has stooped so low as to suggest that libraries are forsaking the true need that the data demonstrates. They should “give up the ghost” and let resources (presumably) flow more robustly to things like childcare, nurseries, and schools where books and reading make the most impact. Again, setting aside the principle that libraries are as equally valuable as democratizing spaces as they are access brokers to knowledge — this argument undervalues the role that libraries can and should play as part of a broader, stable communal infrastructure of education. Libraries serve as lifelong conduits to learning and they help bridge the earliest stages of literacy to an enduring relationship with ongoing intellectual formation.
In my reading, the only thing that I can conclude from reading McTernan’s article is that he speaks for an austerity-driven political establishment that privileges the colonizing of the public by commercial interests bent on usurping the enriching role of libraries in peoples’ lives. He could have used the data from the BBC survey to advocate for a revitalization of the public’s use of libraries, reinforcing what is at stake in the trade-off. Instead, he chose to let the data, no matter how depressing, drive his response. The truth is that McTernan has been aggressively pushing for library closures for years now, referring to libraries as “whingers”. You would think the man had something of an axe to grind given he has been out of libraries for more than 20 years now.
Sincerely folks…The Data Does Not Have to Have the Last Word. Make a choice. Support your local libraries!