Julia Eccleshare paints a depressing picture of the future of public libraries in an article for The Guardian:
“They need more borrowers and yet, one of their biggest problems, in my experience, is that ‘borrowing’ is not a readily understood modern concept, however well-embedded it was in Carnegie’s day.”
Why are so many books never returned? (Or stolen, as they quaintly said in Carnegie’s day.) Eccleshare thinks this is a symptom of today’s free-access-to-everything society. But is a change in culture really to blame?
Theft has been the bane of public libraries since they opened. What’s more, science fiction writers and fans have done some of the pilfering, and been none too shy about admitting it.
Harlan Ellison told fans at a LASFS banquet in 1970 that as a boy he stole the entire Encyclopedia Britannica from the library one volume at a time, smuggling them under his shirt. He was only caught at the end when he tried to take the Worldbook and Gazeteer on the same day.
Then, my local library hosted a science fiction discussion group when I was in high school. The librarian told us that the book most often stolen from the branch was Mein Kampf. While she was out of the room, two of the members of the group agreed, yes, that’s how they’d acquired their copies. (Yipes!)
So has this long-term problem actually gotten worse? Or has the effect only been intensified by the real cause of the libraries’ plight, dwindling financial support for book purchases by public libraries? I would infer that to be the case after reading Jerry Pournelle’s observations on Chaos Manor that he could formerly rely on libraries accounting for thousands of hardcover sf sales, but no longer.
It would be interesting to know whether the suspected change in public behavior has really happened. It may simply be that libraries suffering thefts don’t have the same liberty to replace stolen books.
[Thanks to John Mansfield and the CBA News for the links.]