Into town this morning, and into Suffolk Central Library in Ipswich. My purpose? To enquire as to the whereabouts of the copy of Vermaseren’s Mithras: the secret god. A copy lives 40 miles away in the county reserve in Lowestoft, and I ordered it online on Tuesday. Yet here we are on Thursday, and it has not arrived.
In I went, to find — to my astonishment — that a childrens’ playgroup had been set up in one corner of the main library. The happy toddlers, and their parents, and some unspecified person in charge, were all singing childrens’ songs lustily. This did mean, of course, that it was impossible for anyone to use the library for reading anything. I had to queue, waiting to be served, so I had plenty of time to “enjoy” the caterwauling. Hard-headed Andrew Carnegie, who funded the original library building, would not have approved.
At the desk, a smart-looking and helpful young lady told me that the book had been loaded into “the van” yesterday, and should be in Ipswich in 4-5 days. I laughed, and asked whether they were sending the book by stage-coach. (On reflection this was unfair: the stage-coach would have made that journey in a day). The poor girl said that “the van” had to go around all the libraries in Suffolk, not just straight to Ipswich. Even so, this is not a large county, and there are only 46 libraries, most of which are tiny and will probably have nothing on order. It’s impossible not to notice that taking a book from the County Reserve to the County Library takes so long. It is, in a word, inefficient.
I then ordered two more Mithras books. The girl volunteered that the books would first search local libraries; and that this would take 4 weeks. Again I felt a sense of unreality; why precisely does a search which could be undertaken in minutes take 4 weeks? I declined this delay, and ordered the books from the British Library. The price for a loan? Now 5.40GBP each. That’s not a lot less than the cost to buy many books. Nor did the girl know who imposed the charge, supposing that it was the British Library. But I know different: the British Library charges something like 15GBP, but the local authorities have a statutory duty to refund that to them. Of course that means that each ILL costs the local council 15 GBP — so if they charge a lot to readers then that will deter people from borrowing books, thereby saving money which could be spent on buying votes!
Meanwhile the libraries themselves decay. I was told on a previous visit that my emails were dealt with so very slowly because most of the staff were part-time, and so tended to leave things for someone else.
And so it went on. Item after item of inefficiency, maladministration, neglect or wrong-headedness. In real terms, there was nobody in charge. Doubtless there is some woman somewhere who receives a salary to run the organisation. (You can tell that it is a woman in charge because the conversion of Ipswich library into a playgroup is something that only a woman would do). But she won’t have budgetary control. All she will be doing is following “the rules”, doing the daily business of administration, but — this is the crucial bit — not in any way concerned with whether what is being done makes sense.
Why do we have libraries funded by compulsory exactions from ordinary people? There is a reason, although you never hear it.
We live in a global economy. We cannot compete on price for work. We can and do compete on educational level. When we have men out of work, it makes sense for them to skill themselves up by reading textbooks, so that they can obtain work and pay taxes. Thus it makes sense for a small deduction on the salaries of us all in order to fund a supply of such books via local reading rooms. It makes sense because in this way fewer people will be subsisting on those same public funds, and their wages will contribute to the local economy. Supplies of textbooks cannot sensibly be held locally, so it makes sense to have a central depot which can speedily supply them as required. The same facility can be used to encourage reading among the lower classes — the middle and upper classes can probably buy whatever they want — , again in order to ensure an educated workforce.
That’s it. It’s not a question of philanthropy, but of cold hard self-interest.
And do Suffolk Libraries fulfil this mission? Or have they forgotten it entirely, and do they now exist primarily to pay salaries to inattentive minor offcials?
The truth is somewhere in between. But if we had to cost-justify Suffolk Libraries, could we do so? I have my doubts.