Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Christopher MiddletonNotes on a Viking Prow
(PN Review 10)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Lehbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
Reader Survey
PN Review Substack

This item is taken from PN Review 251, Volume 46 Number 3, January - February 2020.

Once upon a time PN Review had more than 300 library subscribers in the UK. Today, world-wide, it has 149 institutional subscribers, a term that embraces libraries, arts councils and other institutions. Our subscriber list has more than trebled, but our UK library subscribers are few. We cannot even boast a full flush of Russell Group universities. As for civic libraries, the number is exiguous. Yet libraries, one might have assumed, should be the core of any serious periodical’s subscriber list, its way of reaching new readers and writers from all walks of life.

Sometimes a key library writes to announce that it intends to discontinue its subscription. It needs to be cajoled into accepting a gratis extra year. Even so, the cost of binding issues into volumes for long-term shelving seems to be a chief bugbear among the older libraries. There is also the cost of cataloguing, the issue of space, and the fact that, compared with a new computer station or a best-selling novel, a literary journal has relatively few users.

But in library terms, relatively few people access most of the print material held. It is held because some people do access it. The library is, or was, less a populist than a democratic space, where readers with a variety of special interests can, or could, find texts important to them. Such readers may themselves not have constituted a significant statistical percentage of overall library users, but they were nonetheless important. Many, let down by the library service, have lost the habit. The Internet is not an adequate substitute, but it’s all some of them have, unless their resources extend to a personal library or an individual subscription.

One reason we had, all those years ago, so many UK library subscribers is that the Arts Council of Great Britain’s policy for its chosen journals was to provide subscriptions to libraries gratis, on the grounds that the best way to support readers, writers, libraries and magazines was to facilitate the end user’s access. Six or seven journals were offered, and libraries could opt in to the scheme. It was considered better to create pull than to contribute to push, to support use rather than production. What mattered in publishing new literature and critical writing was not marketing and selling but (libraries being libraries) provision.

The hope was that the libraries would, after a period of years, take over the cost of subscribing, having built up a reader base. This proved to be wishful thinking. When the scheme had run its course, not all, not many, of the libraries that had benefited found budget to continue subscribing. Major periodical beneficiaries – the New Review, for example – suffered and ceased publication. Others adapted as best they could to the new order, which was the old order restored. Subsidy, where it survived, reverted to the earlier pattern of support for production.

The much-publicised crisis in our library culture often assumes that civic and institutional libraries have not really changed much in purpose or function over the years. Outrage was expressed when Manchester Central Library was refurbished and disposed of thousands of books, replacing book space with computer terminals, social and performance areas to draw in a public that had not previously felt at ease in the hushed space where people went to read and find out what was old and new. Despite the commendable interests of wider public engagement, some critics and some erstwhile readers felt libraries were losing sight of their original, devoted and even dependent constituencies. Their buying policies no longer privileged the various minorities (and here I do not mean ethnic or social minorities but those groups with minority interests in, for example, steam engines, local history, origami, poetry) for which the library was an irreplaceable resource.

The argument is that the Internet provides, largely free of charge, much that before required non-digital skills to access. Manchester Central Library has more users than it did before, but probably not more readers. Certainly its periodical resources are depleted in comparison to what they were. And PN Review, whose offices are nearby and whose contributors include many people from Manchester’s communities, is no longer to be found on its shelves.

Simon Armitage is making libraries one of the causes he intends to support during his laureateship, scheduling a ‘ten-year library tour’. He will spend a week every spring touring libraries because ‘the very existence of the library system is under threat’. I expect that as he visits and spotlights key libraries, he will also remind them of their place in contributing to the literary health of the nation. If they are to be book and magazine places as well as computer terminals, the advocacy they require from pressure groups and powerful individuals like the poet laureate needs to be directed not only at funding bodies and the public but at the librarians themselves. A whole generation has grown up in the age of ‘information culture’ and has presided over, or presided during, the service’s steep decline. English Library loans are down by 43% in ten years, the Bookseller reported in December, and 59% since the turn in the millennium.

The figures, provided by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), are used by some Authorities to argue the obsolescence of the libraries themselves – there are more pressing priorities – and by others to drum up support for an idealised renaissance in our library culture. The indefatigable Tim Coates, quondam managing director of Waterstone’s, has made it his mission to champion libraries. He can sound apocalyptic when he describes this ‘terrible state’ of play: repeated schemes to turn around the service have failed. With reduced buying budgets, reduced provision for readers, it is hardly surprising that loans are down. The prophecy is self-fulfilling. ‘The British public library service is in a terrible state and will require major reorganisation if it is, in future, to be useful. […] Use of the service has been falling regularly for the past twenty years, and funding has been falling for the past ten. In comparison, for example, to America and to Australia, the figures for the UK are simply dire.’

Last month, figures were released that showed a further loss of thirty-five libraries in 2018-9. Over the last ten years, 17.7% of libraries (about 800) have closed. There are now 371 libraries run by volunteers, up from 272 the previous year. Though book budgets have risen modestly, by 0.4% year on year, book prices have risen faster, and seven million fewer visits were recorded and a 4.4% fall in books issued.  

The new government has been challenged to produce £250 million to ‘deliver a world-class library sector,’ a sum which is also intended to cover ‘information and knowledge for the 21st Century’. Arts Council England has found £2 million for libraries, using its National Lottery resources. It is not yet clear what is going to be built out of the ruins of the library system. Is a new name required, one that does not foreground the printed word in the way library does but acknowledges that we live in an irreversibly post-Gutenberg age? In the New Republic (23 December), arguing that Rupi Kaur was the most important writer of the past decade, Rumaan Alam’s coat-trailing article delivered some relativistic home truths of a kind that go to the heart of a contemporary value system based in a seductive, reductive technology. Is literature, is literacy, so vulnerable to, so entailed in, the populism that, in the Trump era, seems to define how we conduct not only politics but literature, the triumph of the tweet? Alam declares:
The next generation of readers and writers views reality through a screen. Kaur, born in 1992, was 15 when the iPhone debuted. The majority of her readers have never known adulthood without that gizmo’s mitigating influence. On Instagram, Kaur doesn’t just share selfies and drawings; she publishes. Kaur’s books have sold more than 3.5 million copies, an incredible number for any poet but the more remarkable when you consider that surely some percentage of her readership has never owned one of those books.

Yet one thing can be guaranteed, that in those libraries that still have some contemporary poetry on their shelves, Kaur’s printed books will be available even when Geoffrey Hill’s, or Anne Carson’s, or Simon Armitage’s, are not.

This item is taken from PN Review 251, Volume 46 Number 3, January - February 2020.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image