A simple way to keep every public library open...

The furore over relatively modest reductions in public library provision shows the enormous challenge facing those seeking to reduce the size and cost of our bloated state.

At an annual cost to the taxpayer of just over £1bn, abolishing all taxpayer-funded library provision would only contribute a tiny proportion of the total savings the state should be trying to make. In fact, even on the most extreme estimates, only around 10% of libraries will close. So the savings will be small indeed.

In the context of overall public debt, running into trillions of pounds when unfunded liabilities are considered, state-funded library provision is unlikely to be the straw which breaks the backs of our children and grandchildren in attempting to pay down the awful legacy successive governments have left them.

But there is a point of principle at stake, and supporters of free markets need to rise to this challenge and seek to combat the special pleading which so often passes for public debate when ‘local services’ are threatened.

For reasons which will be obvious to anyone who takes the slightest interest in the world around them, library use is in overall decline. The total number of library visits in 2010 was 3.4 million lower than in 2009 – and weekly visits have fallen by a third in the last five years. Over 60% of adults have not set foot in a library in the last twelve months.

As a means of dispensing reading material, libraries are becoming antiquated. Around two thirds of households are hooked up to broadband, and so the huge amount of data which is freely accessible at the click of a button makes walking down to one’s local library to look up basic reference material seem odd to many.

About 1.2m second hand books are for sale in the UK via ebay, with prices starting from just a penny.  If you want to browse around for something interesting to read, Amazon is a much better bet than the shelves in your local library. And the rapid growth of electronic books is making paper-based material a thing of the past for the increasing number of Ipad and Kindle users.

In contrast, if you divide the overall cost of libraries by the number of books lent, the taxpayer is shelling out about £3 per book. It is fair to point out that libraries do more than just lend books, but it is a major part of their work. Even at say £1.50 or £2 per book lent, this does seem an increasingly daft way of getting reading matter into people’s hands.

None of this washes with the save our libraries brigade though. Lots of people don’t have broadband access, they point out. Wikipedia isn’t always 100% reliable. Libraries are ‘hubs of the community’, hosting a wide range of educational events. Case studies are adduced, with individuals proclaiming how they wouldn’t have developed skill X or learnt to do Y without their public library.

The social good which libraries bring about is - it is suggested - immeasurable and intangible. Quite quickly, this morphs into an implication of the social good being essentially infinite. I’m not aware of the library campaigners identifying one single library amongst the 4,500 in the country which they believe should close. Neither have they set out any criteria to determine the basis upon which a library would ever close.

Celebrities such as Nicky Wire, bassist of the Manic Street Preachers, see library closures as a ‘direct attack on the soul of the country’. It’s unclear how much of his own personal fortune Mr Wire has pledged to the cause of keeping libraries open, if any at all.

The solution for the library campaigners should be pretty clear. If the closures are as unpopular as they suggest, pass the hat round and raise some money. It shouldn’t be that difficult. The entire library budget could be met by each British adult donating £25 a year (or maybe £60 a year from those who actually visit these places on a remotely regular basis). In other words, about the cost of a ticket to a Premier League football match. This might be a sizable sum of money for some people, but not for all that many. And those campaigners who can’t stretch to £60 can be confident that the rich members of the campaign such as Mr Wire and multi-millionaire novelist Philip Pullman will surely be willing to pay their own share several hundred or several thousand times over. This isn’t a flippant challenge; philanthropy has a proud and honourable history of providing just this sort of public service.

The real issue, of course, is that people like a service – such as libraries – but they don’t like paying for it directly. They think people like me – I don’t think I’ve visited a library in fifteen years and I consider them of rapidly diminishing importance – should be made to support their pet projects. The anger, rage and publicity generated by the save our libraries campaign just goes to prove the famous Frederic Bastiat adage that government is the great fiction through which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else. If their campaign is successful, we will have embraced that fiction even more tightly. That’s not a fair, free or even sustainable way to develop public policy.

Sponsoring systems even work for wooden benches, so why not libraries? There could be offers like "If you donate more than £X per year, a big gold plate with your name on it will be visibly placed in the reading room."
Maybee wetherspoons could be the local library.
Whilst I agree with this article - that if people REALLY care, do something about it, I DO feel that the councils are rather missing the point. Yes, they need to reduce their spending. But, as the libraries account for such a SMALL amount of their budget, surely they should look elsewhere. In my experience, councils have spent most of their time empire building. So now is the time to reduce those "empires" and make some REAL savings. Working more efficiently within the council could make a real difference instead of p... in the wind. One other thought, if the councils can't afford to run libraries, swimming pools etc., what about handing over to some enterprising public. (I am sure there must be some). Perhaps they could do a better job at running these organisations more efficiently?
What could also be added is that some libraries could be run as private enterprises with a profit motive - they could also be run on a 'mixed' basis, i.e. part supported by philanthropy, part profit-making. Profitable libraries or lines of business could easily be used to cross-subsidise less profitable areas of activity. It's up to the private sector - charitable and profit-making - to discover how best to run libraries, how many are wanted and so on. Government should have nothing to do with libraries with the exception of the British Library and one or two other institutions. It should be pointed out that many of the books lent in public libraries are of dubious quality - they are often modern popular fiction. If people wish to read these, fine, but why ought the rest of the population subsidise them to do so, especially when these books can often be purchased more cheaply outside of libraries? Moreover, why should internet users be subsidised when internet cafes are readily available, and why ought their service provision be crowded out by state controlled libraries? I loathe the celebrity culture of this country at the best of times but it's made even more irritating when celebrities come out to support taxpayer's money being spent on their favourite pet project - be it forests, libraries or anything else. They are invariably suffering from serious endowment effects - it is clear that not only would reduction in spending on libraries not do much harm, but that withdrawal of state subsidies for libraries would actually allow a better system to emerge, paid for by users or those who wish to support their activity voluntarily.
Matthew Parris had a very good article in The Times on Monday, entitled: Your guide to fighting those wicked Tory cuts', in which he wittily went through a whole alphabet of arguments against cuts. Quoting his opening paragraph will give the flavour: "It is too early to make cuts, or it is too late. The cut proposed is too small to be worth the fuss, or too big to warrant the risk. The saving in question is brutal, and we should not cut to the bone; or it is mere salami-slicing, and we should cut radically or not at all. Everybody will be hurt by this cut. Or only some people will, so we would be singling them out." His final sentence is also interesting: "Selling off the Forestry Commission ticks A, B, C, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, O, P, Q, R, W, X and Z." This may be 'a Tory-led government', but hysterical opponents of any cuts at all seem to be ultra-conservative. They simply don't want to change in any respect. The notion of 'opportunity cost' seems to pass them by. I suspect one reason for all the hullaballoo is that most people just don't appreciate how much of their own money they fork out in taxes of one sort or another. The state has become too 'efficient' in concealing the coercive nature of much of our economy. Cigarette manufacturers are now required to put a health warning in big letters on cigarette packets: it would be salutary if sellers of, e.g. petrol, drinks, cigarettes, etc. were required to notify purchasers of their products clearly how much in total was going in tax to the government.
It will be interesting to see if the government - and the people seeking to keep libraries open - explore fully the options suggested by the US concerns that run US public libraries.

Although the savings from closing libraries will be relatively small in terms of current spending, it's important to remember that they often occupy valuable land in central locations. By selling off these sites for redevelopment, councils should be able to reimburse council-tax payers, at least partly, for the years of library subsidies. There will also be wider economic benefits from converting libraries into more productive uses.

Following up Richard's point...there might be situations where you wanted to scrap the lending library but keep thre reference books, mpas, newspapers, reading room and internet points and you could do that in a few square feet of office space with a security camera and no staff within council's existing premises. Furthermore, there could be a coffee bar franchise let out to pay some of the costs.
Libraries are not "pet projects" but an important resource in a free society. One of the biggest issues campaigners have is not the closure of libraries per se, but the huge, knee-jerk cuts which are not properly thought through, and provide little option for expanding when times are less tough. Many councils have not consulted with professionals or their communities, and as a result closures are being proposed in areas where they are most important. Your comments about taxation are also very frustrating: the fact is, we do live in a society which levies taxes from its citizens, and as a result we expect certain basic services - education, libraries, health, defence. If I don't have children of a school age, must I support those who do by funding schools? Of course! These people will be the professionals and leaders of the future, and the failure of society to provide the opportunity for these people to come from all walks of life will only detract from future innovation and quality. If I am not sick, must I support those who are through hospitals? Of course! Poor sanitation and health conditions will mean widespread epidemics in areas where most cannot afford private healthcare. Libraries contribute to society by enabling access to materials for all. There are doubtless options for transforming library services to take full advantage of technology (most already do), and savings from expanding cooperative working (something libraries have done for years). But cutting services is a blunt tool, and one which affects huge numbers of people. Finally, concerning your suggestion of adults paying just £25 per year to run libraries. Every adult currently does donate to the running of the library service, through their taxes. Would there really be any benefit in making the contribution outside the existing system (other than adding to the administrative costs of gathering the money)?
The answer is simple. 1. Private sponsorship is a start. 2. Libraries could start charging for each book they lend, like £2 or something. 3. The cost of the local library could be shown as a separate line on your Council Tax bill (about £50 a year from your calculations) and people could vote by simple majority whether they want to pay it or not. 4. Libraries could offer annual season tickets of (again using your figures) for £60 a year with unlimited free loans (instead of or as an addition to suggestion 2.). Disclaimer: I'm an atheist, a public library is the closest I know to a place of worship.
It is easy to decry the cost of public libraries if one has not needed to use one for 15 years. It is even easier to assume they are not relevant to anyone if they are not relevant to you. Just because I haven't used the M1 motorway for 15 years does not mean it is a "pet project" of those who do. When a similar approach was presented by an IEA spokesman on "You and Yours yesterday", 700 people responed. Two of those 700 agreed with him. Usage is actually increasing in public libraries by the way, by 10% over the last five years. http://thoughtsofawannabelibrarian.wordpress.com/2010/11/19/library-usag... In addition, interestingly, South Korea are building 180 new libraries in order to promote literacy. Interesting that. http://www.koreaherald.com/lifestyle/Detail.jsp?newsMLId=20110126000678 For the full list of library closures and map see http://publiclibrariesnews.blogspot.com/ For reasons to defend libraries, please see http://www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk/wordpress/
@Anonymous 21.17. I think we need to move to a position whereby users/supporters of the M1 pay the costs of that service. And users/supporters of libraries pay the cost for their services. Looking into statistics about usage has some genuine value in trying to gauge "support" (that's why I did it), but in some ways is similar to the way that the Soviet Union tried to organise its food programmes. If libraries are popular and people love them, then raise the cash from these people. If they aren't really supported, close them down. I think there is good evidence to suggest libraries are becoming less and less valuable/interesting. But heck...feel free to prove me wrong. I'm not much of a fan of Coronation Street or Rugby League football. But if the people who are fans of these things are willing to pay to keep Corrie and Rugby League going, that's absolutely fine by me. Just don't expect me to pay for either please. And I don't want to be forced to pay for state-run library provision either. If you have loads of people on the side of wanting to keep, say, Battersea library open, it will be simplicity itself to raise the cash to do so. If you fail to do so, I don't think you should be able to confiscate the shortfall from people like me (and I'm also quite happy to surrender my "entry rights" to Battersea library....I don't use them and don't much care about them)
@Lizz. I'm not sure I agree with many of your "Of course!" assertions. I want to give people more choice. We are very likely to disagree (not just you and me...I mean more generally) about what constitutes an "important resource in a free society". Quite genuinely - I'm not being flippant here - I think major football clubs are an important part of society. My own team - Southampton FC - really do bring together the city and a wider community. I donate to the wonderful Saints Foundation. And I'd like you to do so as well. The foundation assists underprivileged kids, gets youngsters involved in sport, organises morale-lifting visits to hospitals and deploys top Saints players as role models in local schools. It also does wonderful work in the third world. You can find out more about the Saints Foundation here http://www.saintsfoundation.co.uk I really hope you become a donor. Just £1 a month can make a real difference. If you'd like further information, please just drop me a line. I don't, however, think you should be forced to contribute to the Saints Foundation. And I don't think others should be able to dictate the amount (if any) that you do decide to contribute. And that's despite the fact that I think the Saints Foundation is a wonderful part of a free society. If you'd prefer to give your money to your local library, that's your choice. It's great to live in a diverse and (broadly) free society, where we can disagree and discuss what our priorities should be. The wonderful thing is that we don't even have to agree! You can choose to support your local library in a charitable way and I can choose to support the Saints Foundation. We are both helping the local community. It only gets nasty when I try to force you to give your hard won cash to the Saints or you try and force me to give it to my local library. That, clearly, would be lunacy.
@Lizz - taxation is not a 'donation' - the most you can say for it, is that it involves some people who would like a particular service (for example those who want more libraries) voting for other people who may not, to pay for it. One 'donates' with ones own money - not with other peoples'. Mark P.
Lizz - you make an important point but that point actually shows why your underlying assumptions are wrong. The state is currently spending over 50% of national income. We have never been able to tax more than 40% on a sustained basis (for all sorts of good economic reasons). Currently plans are to take public spending back down to 2004 levels as a proportion of national income (hardly radical). Personally, I think we should tax much less and allow people to take decisions how they spend their money. However, let's put that point aside. You argue that in return for all those taxes you expect certain things and you do not get them and that savage cuts are being made that are not thought through. The way bureaucrats handle both cutting and expanding spending and do not provide decent public services in return for the extraordinary amount of money they spend should make you pause for thought: perhaps public funding is not the best way to provide these services. We did have exceptionally good voluntary and subscription libraries at one time - all put out of business by free local authority libraries.
Oh ha ha. Why don't we pass the hat to keep British troops in Afghanistan? I'm sure that's way less popular than libraries, and public support is dwindling even faster. Book usage is declining because libraries order fewer books, they spend more of their budget on technology, so there are fewer appealing books for patrons to check out, and so the decline of libraries becomes a self fulfilling prophesy.
Mark Littlewood: "I think there is good evidence to suggest libraries are becoming less and less valuable/interesting. But heck...feel free to prove me wrong." A little tricky to prove you wrong on a subjective opinion. Provide some fact (or at least link to this 'good evidence' you talk about) and then there will be something to attempt to prove wrong. I think the fact that overall library visits are at a record level rather suggests that not many people agree with you. But then when you are at the IEA that's a position you must be rather used to.
@johnqpublic "Book usage is declining because libraries order fewer books, they spend more of their budget on technology" How do you explain the fact that book issues were higher in 2010 than they were in 2008 then?
johnqpublic - you are treating a serious issue far too lightly. There are, indeed, some people who do not think we should be using UK troops to figh in Afghanistan. However, using charity to fund an army is more or less impossible. Using some form of voluntarism to fund libraries is much easier because the sevice is localised. Voluntary libraries had a great history that the state extinguished. You might also get much more innovative approaches to providing services especially as some services might become more or less redundant given the extraordinary second hand book market we now have.
Why dont trade unions take over all remaining public libraries? This would be a service that I am sure its members would appreciate and be happy to pay for and it may even help to increase union membership. Im sure this is the kind of activity which cooperative socities and trade unions were engaged before they began to look to politicians and central government to solve all of their problems. Therefore perhaps taking over public libraries will help trade unions to redicover their soul.
Philip - not sure where you get this notion about volunteer libraries being successful before. I'm currently doing research into that area for my Masters dissertation and I can say categorically that the research I have come across states the complete opposite. They were in desperate need of investment by the time local authority libraries became established...the library service would have struggled to survive without that investment.
Ian - I am sure James S (comment above yours) can help with this. He is at the E G West centre at Newsvastle University. I won't put his email address here for spam reasons
Mark, I accept your point. Not all of us, however, are fortunate enough to live near enough to a football team with the level of influence of Southampton. And this is fundamentally my problem with the charity model. It becomes a postcode lottery in a way that in shouldn't be - literacy is a vital skill, and one that only really improves with practice. Libraries offer those without personal resources access to books, and this improves the effectiveness of the tuition provided by schools (private or public). There is huge potential for libraries to work alongside charities (usually established as "friends groups"), and it would be very encouraging to see this kind of partnership working established in a lot of areas of public services, with a certain level of service (e.g. the free loan of books) being provided by the council, and value added services being provided as needed for the community they serve. Organisations such as the Saints Foundation are clearly setting a fine example of how large organizations should be acting in order to benefit their communities, and it would be fantastic to see this applied to other areas of public life. I have worked on projects which looked at the closure of libraries in the past. There are obviously emotive issues, but one of the most surprising aspects was that in many small libraries, providing an alternative (to meet the requirements of the 1964 act) often proved equally expensive. Larger libraries are too well used to close, and the result is that councils chip away at their library service without really gaining anything. It is a worry that these kinds of cuts, motivated purely by financial savings, are ultimately inefficient, unproductive and prevent future options being explored (Beeching cuts anyone?). I can see that arguments about how much the state funds is always going to result in a stalemate between those who would rather keep their wealth and spend it on their own "pet projects", and those who believe some "pet projects" are valuable to society as a whole and are prepared to contribute taxes to the funding of these in general, regardless of which they use. It's an ideological argument, but one that fails when people pay the same amount of money in taxes, whilst receiving fewer services.
There are great advantages of using a price mechanism in any case. The local authority could provide a subsidy but the library could be an independent trust charging many (though not necessarily all) of its regular users. Apart from the revenue issues, the trust would know best how to cut costs if costs were higher than revenues; it would have incentives to discover what kind of services people want to pay for; it would have an incentive to let out some of the space to a coffee shop etc. etc. The striking thing about my library is that, apart from a few computer terminals, it is no different from my library 40 years ago when I was a small child. It is also worth adding that, if libraries charged other potential providers with a hugely better potential service level (such as universities) might be tempted to charge and allow people to use their services too (currently they cannot compete with a zero price); a local school might think it worth developing adult library services and charging parents etc etc. We have a stagnent model - local authorities give money to library to provide the same services that were provided in 1971. The only change is contraction. I wonder whether, if local authorities had run libraries in 1700, the books would still have chains on today.
Sorry, but this is piffle. You say yourself the savings of closing libraries is negligible. So why close them, except to satisfy your free market ideology, and let the millions of people who actually do use them go hang? Go to your local library and be pleasantly surprised. They are NOT the same as they were in 1971, that's nonsense. Volunteers are not the answer - I've worked with them and while they are great up to a point, they are unreliable, sometimes unsuitable, and their goodwill is easy to exploit, until it evaporates. And if we all paid for the services we actually used, there would be anarchy. I'd pay for libraries but not for motorways, and certainly not for any of the armed forces, or Trident, or for social services, or for schools. Nor would I pay for mental health provision or hospitals - not yet, anyway. Public services were set up in the first place to make order out of chaos. If we left everything up to charitable donations, every abandoned kitten in the country would be worth thousands, and mentally challenged adults would be destitute on the streets.
Anonymous - I never said anything about closing libraries. I said that there is a better way to run and finance libraries than having a central government requirement on local authorities to provide them directly. I assume that you neither have confidence in people who value libraries nor confidence that enough people would find them valuable to believe that, if people were free to choose, libraries would still exist. I regularly use a library and I am afraid their lack of innovation is not nonesense. Also, anarchy does not prevail when people are allowed to make choices. Many countries charge for roads: there is no anarchy; we used to have private and charitable libraries: it was not anarchy; I buy food in Sainsburys: I see no anarchy. Furthermore, nobody is suggesting "leaving everything to charity" (but that libraries are one service that could be provided by a variety of models). It is very easy to knock down a straw man whereas we need serious debate. It is strange that the regular users of libraries who partipate in these debates use such emotional rather than rational arguments.
Libraries would be easy to run by volunteers. The country is full of babyboomer pensioners in good health with not enough to do.The only skill needed to issue and reshelve books is basic literacy. The Save our Libraries brigade would be better employed organising volunteer groups to keep libraries open than trying to borrow all the books.
This matter is clearly a symbolic and emotive issue to all sides of the debate ; but as this is an economics blog and debate it may be valuable to consider the matter in economic terms? Are libraries in a technical, economic, sense private goods (excudlable, and 'rival' in consumption) or public goods...not in the sense that Lizz would wish, but in the economic sense (i.e. non-excludable and non-rival)? I have to agree with the drift of Mark Littlewood's argument that library services in the main fall into neither of these polar economic categories, and generally have the features of a club good, in the sense of J.M.Buchanan: i.e.,non-members can easily be excluded (you can't borrow a book without a membership card),but one member's consumption of the service is not entirely precluded if another member 'consumes' the same service (e.g.I can borrow the same book, once you return it). In this sense, library services are more akin to cinemas, or football clubs/stadia -- as Mark argues -- than they are to pure private goods, such as apples and pears; or to pure public goods/bads such as major military operations on the national behalf. Where does this take us? An obvious avenue to explore is the possibility of selling/marketing the club good...and this could work out to be a cheap, not very costly, service, I suggest. Actually, the gains in terms of fiscal retrenchment from reducing library expenditures are going to be very small; because libraries are small, and cheap, items of local authority expenditure. It can also be argued -- and I do -- that there is some -- admittedly non-quantifiable -- merit good element to libraries, being linked as they are to education and literacy: two of our most chronic problems today in the UK.So, if we going to subsidise anything at all, this seems like a good idea. In conclusion, I think that the drift of Mark's argument is technically correct: libraries are primarily a club-goods matter. I disagree with his conclusion, however. Libraries are totally trivial in public expenditure terms, and probably do a marginal bit of good, in merit-good terms. If we want to cut public expenditure -- and we need to -- there are plenty of more obvious, and much larger, candidates.Aircraft carriers without planes to start with?
Most of the pundits who hold forth on how easily libraries could be run by volunteers haven't a clue of the range of services offered by a typical public library service. It might be an idea if Ed Vaizey shadowed a busy librarian and saw the variety of tasks carried out in a typical day. It is not merely lending and re-shelving books. A significant aspect is outreach. In the course of twenty years as a childrens' librarian, Community Librarian and manager of a busy East London library I have- driven a library van to provide a service to deprived urban, rural and traveller children; given out Bookstart bags to mothers waiting with their children for visiting time at the local prison; encouraged parents with poor literacy to support their children with their reading; read to severely disabled children in a special school; provided a newly-bereaved mother with a book to help her child understand, and another mother with a book on Alzheimer's to use with her child to explain what was happening to Granny; made links with the local college to introduce young people with learning disabilities to their library; worked with Polish Roma groups who were learning English, asylum seekers, and unaccompanied children newly arrived in the UK. While the Liberal Democrats exert themselves over ways to make University entrance more accessible to poorer students, many academics would say that more work needs to done with much younger children to increase their opportunities. If our schools were not so hamstrung by the curriculum, timetable and health and safety teachers could ensure that many more classes made regular visits to their local library and give young people the tools to educate themselves.
John, you make some very interesting points. I must correct you though, it is almost impossible to exclude someone from a public library as they do not prevent non-members using the services within the library building, even if they are unable to register for a library card (e.g. if they lack an address). This opens the facilities to the most excluded people in society. The only reason I can think of for excluding someone from a public library is if they pose a threat to the safety of the staff or other users.
Lizz - the point of a club good is that excludability is feasible. But, in any case, it is amongst those who could not afford a library that the charitable or public subsidy aspect could exist. In my scout group, there is a fee to join but nobody is excluded because they cannot pay the fee. Of course, we can make that judgement in a small scout group but, in this case, there could be a subscription for all (after all, the better off and articulate are the main users of libraries - hence why the campaign to keep them open is so vociferous) with the local authority giving a free card to people in certain circumstances (eg unemployed etc).
@Angela. With the very greatest of respect to the well-intentioned work you’ve undertaken, there’s a danger that your post can be read as “The real problem here is that most people don’t realise how brilliant I am”. It doesn’t address the central issue. If libraries (and librarians) are so good, people won’t just complain about their closure (that’s easy), they will donate cash to keep them open (that’s the test)
@Lizz. I’ve heard some pretty extravagant justifications for state-funded projects before. But I’ve never heard “I accept your point. Not all of us, however, are fortunate enough to live near enough to a football team with the level of influence of Southampton. And this is fundamentally my problem with the charity model.” Southampton FC is not an influential team. A good case can be made that Saints are, in fact, the most under-performing club anywhere in the UK. And Saints’ catchment area is huge – many fans come from as far afield as Bath, Salisbury and south London. What tiny influence Southampton FC has is spread extremely thinly. Indeed, I’m struggling to think of a place you could possibly live in the United Kingdom without a much more influential football team (or several small, fairly influential football teams) being nearby. For someone’s “fundamental problem with the charity model” being the awesome level of influence of Southampton FC leaves me, as a Saints fan, very touched but also utterly bewildered.
@Angela, @Lizz. Angela's day diary lists a lot of busyness but many of these are generally held skills like driving. Outreach of course is important but people able to lead seminars or children's groups are not thin on the ground either. I run an amateur music ensemble - I'm proud to say, self funding - whihc is one of a national network which also has no state aid at all, but a budget from musical charities. If asked, I could find a shortlist of really good music facilitators in a half day. There are lots of well educated free lance drama and literature people out there too who would be happy to lead groups at volunteer libraries.
@Mark. I don't follow soccer at all, but obviously know a disproportionate number of Southampton supporters...
@JohnBurton - I'm pleased to see someone taking the right sort of line. As libraries are not pure public goods, it is not up to the state to provide them. We might wish the state to subsidise them to some degree (I don't, but still) but not provide them directly as a monopoly. Whether libraries represent a trivial amount of expenditure is immaterial. Their cost is only trivial in comparison to total public spending, not in an absolute sense - if that's a trivial amount of spending I'll have it then! If viewed this way, all items of public expenditure become trivial and thus not liable to be cut - even the vast welfare budget could be broken down into tiny components and made to appear trivial. A vast amount needs to go, libraries included. You pick a really poor example of a piece of spending that could be cut. Contractual obligations aside, the aircraft carriers really are a public good! Moreover, they could quite easily be provided with planes if other areas of public spending (i.e. most of it) which ought not be occurring were eliminated or even if more wasteful and less useful defence projects (ie. most of the RAF, particularly the Eurofighter, and a good chunk of the Army) were done away with.
I have three separate comments: (1)the economic concept of excludability: Lizz, you don't understand the concept; as Philip says above, this is about feasibility,not practice. It is quite feasible to exclude non-payers from the consumption club goods: try getting a cinema or a football stadium for free.The current fact that public libraries in the UK do not always try to exclude non-payers is irrelevant: it is, in principle possible -- just as cinemas and football stadia exclude non-payers. The economic case that Mark Littllewood advances --that we must recognise these basic facts -- is quite frankly true. There is an appalling lack of thinking about how to deliver library services (I live in Camden, which is inevitably carrying out an expensive survey on how to cut -- without any thought about about how to reconfigure in business/economic terms -- their library services). (2)Are libraries a merit good, in economic terms? A merit good is something thought to be generally desirable, and deserving of some public subsidy, although not as justifiable as a clear case of a public good. I can only reaffirm my belief that public libraries are deserving of public subsidy, to some degree (I cannot say how much) , not least because they may be used to ameleriorate the literacy and education problems that afflict our country. Here I apparently agree with Whig's comments, to some degree? (3) IWhat is a public good? Whig apparently thinks aircraft carriers without planes fit this terminology: I I disagree.Quite clearly, this is a public bad, not a public good: the rest of us cannot avoid consumption of the useless 'product', nor can we exclude ourselves from paying for massive government failure. To say that we are contractually obliged, as Whig does, is to avoid the economic and moral realities.This was a deal signed behind doors, without proper restraint on the electoral considerations involved. What we need to do in the future is to think a lot more clearly about these rather basic matters of economic terminology,concepts, and facts, as the Institute of Economic Affairs encourages.
Ian/Philip - I suppose it depends on what you mean by voluntary libraries. There was certainly a vibrant private library market which was subsequently crowded out by the expansion of free public libraries. For example, commercial subscription libraries began when booksellers began renting out extra copies of books and by 1790 there were already over 600 private rental and lending libraries, with a clientele of 50,000 readers. Following the growth of gentlemen-only libraries, the late eighteenth century also witnessed the growth of subscription libraries for tradesmen which were designed principally for the use and instruction of the working classes. In 1842, Charles Edward Mudie (1818–90) started to lend books from his stationery shop in Southampton Row, London, and by the end of the century he would be referred to as ‘the King of the librarians’ and credited with revolutionising book reading across the UK. By the end of the century Mudie’s Select Library consisted of an estimated 7.5 million books. WH Smith stated its lending service in 1858 which lasted until 1961. Boot’s Booklovers’ Library started in 1898 and closed in 1966 and by 1938 they had one million subscribers who were borrowing 35 million books a year. The 1920s also witnessed the rapid growth of the pay as you read two-penny library which made use of cheap reprints and second hand books and were often operated as a sideline to another business. By the late 1930s there was an estimated 6,000–7,000 of such libraries across the UK. Together with this vibrant private market a variety of libraries existed funded by charities. For example Chetham's Library in Manchester was founded in 1653 (its the oldest public library in the English-speaking world) and remains open to readers free of charge. It was started by Humphrey Chetham (1580–1653), who was the most successful gentleman merchant of seventeenth-century Lancashire who made a fortune out of buying and selling cloth. Incidently this is where Marx met with Engles when he first visited Manchester in 1845. Without government intervention im sure the country would now be littered with privately funded libraries named after the rich and famous.
Mark, leave my brilliance aside- we don't need to get personal. The point I wanted to make is that there is a lot of low-level social support going on in most public library services, carried out not by specialist staff but as part of the typical day job. And it's this element of the job that brings most satisfaction to a lot of us, and is little-recognised by the politicians or the economists, as far as I can gather. But as you may have realised, the range of people I mentioned in my blog are precisely those who would not be able to pay for the service in the way you suggest. I also doubt that it is the sort of work that volunteers would sign up for, or have time to do alongside the basic functions of running the library building (but I might be wrong). Moving onto an economic solution, can I offer one? Books carry no VAT. Publishers make a large amount out of libraries, even when discounts are taken into account. How about a levy on each book sold in the UK- say 10p per book? I have no idea how much that would produce, or how it would relate to the sums needed to sustain the present level of service- but you might like to do the sums.That way everybody who buys a book, whether in a supermarket, Waterstones or Blackwells, would contribute to a service which not only brings support to individuals and families, but would also contribute to the broader aim of helping poorer communities. Literacy produces more confident, more self-sufficient and employable individuals and that undoubtedly would have a positive economic effect on the whole country.
@Anglea. I wasn't trying to launch a personal attack on you. All I was pointing out was that a list of good works done by public servants does not, of itself, justify retaining a particular taxpayer-funded project. I think there are major problems with recasting public library provision as a poverty relief policy. Is there solid evidence to suggest that it is successful in this regard - for example, are a substnatial proportion of books lent go to those who would find it difficult to afford to purchase books? Or are libraries mainly used people like my affluent parents who have simply discovered a more cost effective means of reading John Grisham novels than having to shell out for them on Amazon? I think we also need to reflect on the incredibly complex nature of our tax system. It is the longest in the world at over 8,000 pages. We need to make it much, much simpler, not have still more special taxes on particular products or services. If we're going to apply a tax on books to fund library provision for the poor, why not a tax on apples to be used to encourage those in deprived areas to adopt a healthy diet? Or a tax on running shoes to be used to set up a fund to encourage the overweight to do more exercise? It's also not at all obvious to me that purchasers of books should be the ones picking up the bill for this. Why shouldn't those who spend money on SKY Sports, rather than books, contribute too? I can well imagine such a scheme emereging in a voluntary way. A publisher might make it plain that "50p of the purchase price of this book goes to help improve literacy in deprived areas" for example.Fine. But that's very different to the state doing it coercively - as well as inefficiently.
would it help if there were an Oregon-style assessment of priorities? Back in the 90s, you may recall, Oregon conducted what was deemed a slightly distasteful survey, furnishing every citizen with a list of medical procedures and interventions, and asked them to list them in order of priority. Apart from the obvious benefit of demonstrating what the recipients (and funders) of health care considered important - as opposed to the providers - it could actually be tied to a sum of money, and thus there would be less of the Bastiat-ism of everyone hoping they would be paid for by everyone else. I understand that the Oregon experiment was perhaps a little difficult for some people to stomach (I believe AIDS sufferers were deemed a low priority), and I would not advocate it for some of the more emotive areas, but for elements such as libraries, swimming pools, leisure centres etc. would it not be useful for: a) councils/providers to detail the cost of provision b) to actually state the sum of money available for the whole c) to get from the public a stated list of priorities, and hence where the money should be spent. Now, I understand that this runs counter to Mr Littlewood's original post insofaras the state might remain a provider, but only if this is what the taxpayers want. Perhaps the first move to garnering support for change is to actually get it out into the open how much a service costs. In areas where the sums are much greater (such as "green energy") the previously-opaque figures are at last being opened to public scrutiny, and this will, I suspect move the current argument about renewables on from "we have to do this" to "why ARE we doing this?". Similarly, if a council has £1m to spend, and 4 services it wishes to provide, but each one costs £500K, a more informed decision can be made about which ones are a public good, and which ones do not require state subsidy - and a willingness to embrace change (or seek innovation such as privately-run librabries) is more likely.
Isn't it odd how touchy some of these these tax consumers are? At the slightest criticism they seem to get very personal. Their motivation couldn't possibly be oldfashioned self interest, surely? No, that can't be it - they're all Good People, Right Thinking People who all Agree With Each Other. They keep telling each other - and the rest of us - how completely selfless they are and that they are motivated solely by public interest. It is high time us mere taxpayers answered back. Also more arguments soundly based in economic theory from the tax consumers would be useful. If they have any that will wash any more in the face of our multi trillion pound deficit

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