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Eating the seed corn

(This will redound to our detriment in the long term.)

As you might have noticed, the British public unintentionally elected a rather weird pantomime horse coalition government nearly two years ago. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the Conservatives vowed to reduce the national deficit — the ratio of tax income to expenditure — in order to reduce the government's level of borrowing. There's more than one way to do this: you can raise tax levels, cut expenditure, or cut tax and increase expenditure selectively to encourage economic growth (and thus increase tax receipts in the long term). The government decided to rely overwhelmingly on just one lever, however: spending cuts.

When the budget is cut, hard choices are made. Do you cut healthcare spending, or essential provision for the severely disabled (and those unable to work because there are no jobs to go round)? Or do you cut fripperies, such as the maintenance budget for public parks or libraries?

As in several other countries, here in the UK we have a thing called the Public Lending Right. PLR is a small pot of cash distributed annually to authors who have registered books that are loaned out via British libraries. This is compensation for sales lost to library loans. It's not a huge pot, and the disbursement is relatively small: it was 6.29 pence (£0.0629) per loan prior to February 2010, and there was a ceiling on payouts — both Terry Pratchett and J. J. Rowling stood to take home no more than £6600 each. To put it in perspective, the royalty an author receives for the sale of a £7.99 paperback is on the order of 60p, or the equivalent of ten loans under the scheme.

Since the Coalition were elected, PLR payments have been cut, modestly: to 6.25p in February 2011, and 6.05p in February 2012. Not too onerous for a round of public belt-tightening ... but it's only a cut of 5% or so over two years, right?

Which is why I am extremely worried to report that my payment has fallen from £1,956.21p in February 2011 to £1,371.39p in February 2012.

I registered two additional titles in 2011, thus increasing my number of titles eligible for loans by around 10%. And my publishers' sales figures don't show my sales to the public falling significantly. (The picture is muddied by the recession and the implosion of Borders in the USA, but I haven't suddenly fallen into the memory hole.)

After taking into account the fact that payments are made at 96.8% of the level in 2012 as in 2011, this corresponds to a drop in library loans of 27.6% in one year — probably more, taking into account the new titles.

I'm not worried because of a cut to my income: rather, I'm worried about the big picture. Libraries are substantially but not exclusively used by children, the unemployed, and pensioners: mostly people without the discretionary spending power to shrug and go to a bookshop instead.

And note the first group I mentioned. I'm not a children/young adult author, but if the drop in my PLR loans reflects library closures, then we have just slammed the door in the face of a new generation of readers. I got my start reading fiction from my local library; the voracious reading habits of a bookish child aren't easily supported from a family budget under strain from elsewhere during a time of cuts. I hate to think what the long term outcome of this short-term policy is going to be, but I don't believe any good will come of it.



It's worse than you think...

And it's not the sort of trend you can easily roll back - even leaving aside the argument that if you tried to create the public library system today, you'd become public enemy number one in the eyes of the MPAA and RIAA and the like; there's the point that for some reason, regardless of any evidence to the contrary, both the UK and Ireland have taken on Austerity like it was the Next Big Thing. Schools, hospitals, every public service is getting their already slim budgets whittled away at by a fairly hamfisted woodworker - and these are not areas we spent money in during the boom.

It's deeply depressing to watch :(


The latest Private Eye has a page on the fate of libraries. They have been covering the ongoing elimination of library services for years now, and there is never any good news. This one reports interesting arguments in a section titled "6 myths about why we don't need libraries anymore (and why we do):

40% of adults regularly visit librarues, which is more than go to football matches. And 80% of children use libraries regularly. Millions of people don't have home internet so use their local ibrary. Not everything is online and the only place to get it is at an actual library.

So as Charlie says there is a severe problem here.
There have been attempts at privatisation of libraries, e.g. in Lewisham, ut that failed miserably due to technical problems.


The shortsightedness of our politicians is a wonder to behold. Spits

What I don't understand is this: People seem to get upset by the amount of taxes they pay. However, the government gives them services (usually of high quality in Western democracies - I can't speak for the rest of the world) cheaper than any other entity. So instead of complaining of "high" taxes, why doesn't the average person consider what services they get for their money and whether the combination of price vs. service is appropriate?

The tagline to my pro-tax commercial goes something like this: "Making sure society doesn't descend into anarchy? Priceless!"


I practically lived at my local library as a child. Brought home a shopping bag full of books every week for years. When I returned to the local in my parents hometown a few years ago, after having been away for twenty years or so, the librarian took a single look then said "Hi Janne, it's been a while hasn't it."

That childhood habit is what is fuelling my neverending spending spree at Amazon and Kinokuniya today. Not to mention the research and other literature my lab spends money on as a result of me having become a PhD rather than work in the steel mill like most of my friends.


Wackenhut and CCA (the two largest operators of private prisons in the USA) have high hopes for the good that will come from austerity.

Good for them, of course.


instead of complaining of "high" taxes, why doesn't the average person consider what services they get for their money and whether the combination of price vs. service is appropriate?

TL;DR: propaganda by those who stand to profit by substitution of private sector priorities for public goods.

Longer version: the rich derive diminishing utility from public services such as libraries, subsidized healthcare, unemployment payments, and so on. Therefore they discount such services when considering business plans. And they've got the leverage and the propaganda arms (the news media) to push their agenda to the public. See also why significant numbers of rural poor folks in the USA vote for Republican billionaires who hate the poor and want them to die.


Well not to worry, once the libraries are closed the kids can download books from a torrent or file locker.


one lever, however: spending cuts. Which is why, of course, public spending has increased in real terms during the current administration.


Could it be that children, the unemployed, and pensioners finally figured out how to use torrents?



"The shortsightedness of our politicians is a wonder to behold."

But I thought the UK is a democracy -- in a functioning democracy, governmental policy isn't supposed to be a function of the personal qualities of representatives, but the pattern of selection due to response to the general population.

This isn't just pedantry. A "short-sighted" politician should lose out to a long-sighted one, because he'd give up votes tomorrow for a smaller gain today.

So, either the population is short-sighted (and blaming the politicians is a straw-man meant to avoid the real problem) --- or in fact the democracy is a facade, and the real driving force of government is a political class which only uses democracy as a tool to manage the population in general.

Or even worse, a combination of the two -- where the former and the latter are tools of manipulation.

I know the US situation better -- we've been implementing "short-sighted" polices now for 40 years. But, in fact, those policies haven't been short-sighted for the political class and their allies: for two generations, a small elite have managed to increase their wealth massively (the top 0.1% increasing their share of income 4-fold since '89)

Doesn't seem short-sighted at all to me. In fact, that's quite far-sighted, to put into policies that will redound to the advantage of your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and to the detriment of other peoples grandchildren. It seems that the "other" people are the short-sighted ones -- they're the ones projecting.


Probably the best we can hope for is that through pressure, forced deals to get content, or unexpected altruism, one of the owners of a Large Digital Library system will make available to children, for very cheap or free, unlimited access to their book collection.

as reasonable e-readers come down in price, it could replace borrowing a library book to taking a (slightly clunky) generic government issues reader device to a mcdonalds where there is free(ish) wifi and snarfing a new book. This has the potential to cross a lot of the socioeconomic borders, the only problem is that it might not come fast enough.

Don't get me wrong, I love libraries, but I don't know how to save them. (but I wish all the best to those dynamic librarians who are trying to figure out how to create library-like spaces that will last)


"See also why significant numbers of rural poor folks in the USA vote for Republican billionaires who hate the poor and want them to die."

On the other hand, the lower population density in rural areas makes infrastructure like libraries and such more difficult to get to...lowering its value.

Anyhow, having grown up in the rural US, and working in an area that serves a fairly large rural population, I'll give an opinion- you make the assumption that people consider their health, material wellbeing, and personal development to be the key motivator to their actions. I.e, that everyone would consider being healthy, educated, and allowed to personally flourish in a community of others who are similarly developed to be the best state of being.

What if you're wrong when discussing what other people want? There seems to be an point of attraction to the point where the person has enough calories to eat, enough alcohol to drink, someone to screw, and a profound sense of territoriality around his own plot of ground....with some firearms to keep everyone else off. They seem to genuinely prefer to reign in a personal hell than serve in...well, not heaven but at least a modestly comfortable society.

Picture a ned who would espouse that state of being as the most reasonable course of action for a human being to take. Not as a default or failed state, but an actual good. Why's he going to vote for funding for a library?


Anura - yup, the UK is hardly a functioning democracy anymore. Our scope of voting options is narrower than it has been since probably the 18th century or suchlike.
It is impossible for a democracy to be properly representative just now, when, leaving aside the issues about who bought whom, you have a choice of candidates between one whose policies are 70% bad, one whose policies are 60% bad and one with 50% bad. So the 50 bad gets elected, they'll still act as if the bad half of their policies are the reason they got elected in the first place. Oddly enough we all know politicians lie "Vote for me, I'll improve services by privatising them" and it turns out that the privatised version is worse and more expensive. But we end up with no feedback loop - the problems don't become apparent until much later and are sufficiently remote from a sufficient percentage of the populace that the idiot gets voted back in. And anyway the other candidates all think privatisation is a good idea, so if you think it should be reversed, who can you vote for? (Anyone saying start your own party can fuck off, since the massive amount of inertia in the system is clearly an impossible hurdle to overcome unless you have a billion pounds or 30 years in which to build your new party by which time it is too late and they've just destroyed your pension so you die of poverty)


{half an hour of fascinated clicking later}...


If, at the turn of the century, someone had said to me that shutting libraries was a false economy, I'd have agreed with them. Now I'm not so sure.

I used to be a regular library user, but I doubt if I've been inside one more than twice in the last 5 years. With broadband and Wikipedia, all the information I want is (usually) at my fingertips.

I realise noyt everyone has net access. But more and more people do, so I ask "Do libraries (in the sense of physical buildings with books in them) have a long term future?"

My prefered solution would be to beef up PLR so people can make a living off it, and have libraries deliver all books online in DRM-free formats.


@13: "UK is hardly a functioning democracy anymore"

Under FPTP, it never has been. That's one reason I suppost Scottish independence -- at least Scotland uses a sane voting system.


And yet the Scotish voting system has returned a one-party absolute majority in the House, despite being almost gerrymandered to prevent that ever happening.


I don't know about the specifics in the UK, but in the US budgetary issues have often forced libraries to reduce their hours and their acquisitions budgets. So it may be that fewer libraries are buying copies of your books now, and that they are not open as often so fewer books are checked out. Since US public libraries tend to be funded by towns/cities, the impact can vary a lot from location to location.


Wait, you are saying that the Scottish system has been deliberately fiddled with to make it impossible to return a one party absolute majority.
But it has done so. So either the people fixing it in the first place were idiots, or maybe people did actually want that one party majority?

Anyway, as a Scot living in central Scotland, I don't ever actually recall them saying "We're going to have a parliament but we want it to require coalitions all the time".


"the UK is hardly a functioning democracy anymore"

Consider that maybe the ideological underpinnings of a social system are less important than the actual relationships it's comprised of.

If some folks can greatly constrain the behaviors of others, nonsymmetrically -- regardless of whether it's described in a language of nationalism, property rights, or democracy -- the basic structure of life comes out the same.

And that goes back to the comment of "rural Americans" as well -- if in fact you prefer authoritarianism, it doesn't really matter whether it's commissars, MPs, or CEOs that implement it, except as a technical matter of competence and stability.

The problem ain't crazy or stupid. It's not talking about the right problem at all.


I don't know of cases where hours and/or budgets have been cut, but in the UK actual physical libraries are funded at a similar level in government (the British Library aside). National government is only involved in the administration of the PLR scheme(qv).


@15: "My prefered solution would be to beef up PLR so people can make a living off it, and have libraries deliver all books online in DRM-free formats."

A quick BOTE calculation tells me that if all libraries were closed and the money went to funding authors, it'd fund 60,000 authors at £30k each.


Less details like download equipment for those who don't have it, including buildings etc for those who don't have a home broadband connection, custodians/tech geeks for that hardware (and we'd need at least 2 working shifts per site to maintain library opening hours)...


Here, in the London Borough of What the Fuck Waltham Forest, we have had an almost solid Labour majority for the past 20 years. The Carnegie LIbrary between me and my local station has FEWER books in it than in 1964. There was a book-pulping minor scandal about two years back. The library buliding has lots of computers, and very few books.

Judging by local politicos, it is NOT about money, and I'm afraid blaming the evil capitalist money-grubbers won't do either. There is a strong streak of proudly ignorant philistinism among many Labour politicians. Or local specialist is Cllr Clyde Loakes - responsible for what was called the Loakes tour of destruction a few years back. The local ("Vestry House") museum, the William Morris Galery, and several other local cultural sites were quite deliberately targeted. We've seen this before, elsewhere, of course. Hatton did it to the great city of Liverpool, and got away with an awful lot, before he was stopped.



One might reasonably infer that there is something a lot of Scots like about what the SNP promised in their election campaign.

One might infer that the Scots are getting a trifle pissed with the parties which are essentially Westminster-centred.

This does not bode well. Last time, the Scots reached Derby, and there are not a few places between Scotland and Derby where the residents don't entirely approve of the Westminster mob.


We've had a pretty stable system in the US without such a system. It worked fine, and I think would continue to work fine, with physical books. For whatever cultural reasons, even in a nice town with a nice library, patrons are a minority.

E-Books are causing great disruption as we speak. News was that following Christmas E-Reader giving, libraries were running out of E-Loan inventory.

My (US centric) solution, would be to revert libraries to places with physical books, and let the E-Books sort themselves. Authors could negotiate the larger electronic market, and the poor, or book-loving, would still have their quiet retreat.


I agree with you. I made similar comment here, where libraries were suggested as Arts Incubator.


It was my understanding that Library usage increases during a recession, which makes sense because your local public library is probably the best bang-per-buck (hmm, what is the UK equivalent for this phrase) going, more so in uncertain economic times.

That said, I would suspect that some numbers are being fudged somewhere, probably due to the fact that the funding has run out, which is scary in a different way. You (or your publisher) might want to double check the numbers (probably unofficially) because as I said, I would not be surprised if the funding has run out, and the payment agency is making some hard choices to at least pay something to everyone.


Eating the seed corn is only disasterous if you are a peasant with no access to the silo. If you are an Aristo, you are merely deciding that your descendents should have a greater degree of control in exchange for a slightly lower standard of living. (Oh, and that a lot of the lower order should starve and/or die in futile revolts, but that's what the uppity worms were going to do anyway, right?) If you are an unusually introspective aristo, you might also wonder if you are making this decision because it increases your personal haul of resources a bit.



best bang-per-buck (hmm, what is the UK equivalent for this phrase) it's actually "best bang for buck"!

You are aware that English hangs around in dark alleys mugging other languages and rifling their pockets for spare vocabulary? Just add American to the list of victims!


You are aware that English hangs around in dark alleys mugging other languages and rifling their pockets for spare vocabulary?
I have that saying on a T-Shirt. really.


Kids with lots of free time, little disposable income and and excellent adaptiveness to dubious reading devices like hand-me-down desktop computers or cellphones able to store and show text files might get clued to the massive amount of pirated genre ebooks floating around nowadays, as long as they get the initial idea that long fiction texts can be fun to read. Parents might also find the idea of keeping their kids entertained indefinitely with no extra cost by supplying them with torrents tempting.

So it might not be so much whether the kids will get into reading books rather than whether they will miraculously develop the habit of paying for their media after 15 or so years of school and torrenting when they finally start getting some regular income.

Does anyone know what actual kids who like to read a lot do? Do they still read most everything from paper, or will they download stuff and read it off the family PC if they want it and can't easily get a paperback? Kindle-style devices still aren't cheap and ubiquitous enough that people would regularly buy them for kids, and reading books of a desktop terminal isn't that obvious, so the possibility might just not have occurred to kids yet.

The prices for Kindles seem to be coming down fast though. When schoolkids start having crummy 30€ e-readers as a matter of course, the possibilities for getting lots of books in one for free are going to become very interesting to many 11-year-olds with a 18-part favorite fantasy novel series.

This isn't just pedantry. A "short-sighted" politician should lose out to a long-sighted one, because he'd give up votes tomorrow for a smaller gain today. So, either the population is short-sighted (and blaming the politicians is a straw-man meant to avoid the real problem) --- or in fact the democracy is a facade, and the real driving force of government is a political class which only uses democracy as a tool to manage the population in general.

The problem with the first statement is that politicians are short-sighted, in general, and don't expect their careers to last. Decisions you make more than year (possibly that should be more like 6 months) before reelection won't matter for your chances of being reelected in general, so there's no reward for thinking past the next 4 years or so, possibly not past the next 6 months or so.

The problem with the second is that you're assuming the population is homogenous. Some, undoubtedly, blame the politicians because they're short-sighted. Some consider the "democracy" we have as a facade (I say some, you can see several posting comments here for example!) and that the politicians are trying to manage us. Between the two, it's rather easy to keep power and keep people bitching about the things you want them to, not the things that matter.


"This does not bode well. Last time, the Scots reached Derby, and there are not a few places between Scotland and Derby where the residents don't entirely approve of the Westminster mob."

I'm having difficulty parsing the above sentence. My gut feeling and anicdotal evidence tells me there's very little outright support for the coalition's policies in England. Admittidly, I'm somewhat removed from a typical Tory voting demography.


That I remember the saying is a comment on my SoH, not on my wit and originality.


I don't have an e-reader and am still an regular library goer, so I would like to ask those who have foregone the physical - how do you know what you're going to want to read?

I wander round the fiction section/s (loathe the splitting up of genres but that's another argument) with names I look out for but always open to something taking my fancy that I knew nothing about.

How does one do this on an e-reader/download?


Small children and books (from personal experience):

I am lucky in that I have kids that seem to be naturally attracted to reading, my wife and I have never had to push them into it, and the number one thing I have to say is that kids love physical books, and it's a good match.

A physical book can be be picked up, read under the covers by torchlight, in the corner behind the sofa, at the kitchen table, on the loo, in a cupboard, in the car, lying upside down off the side of the sofa (yes, they really do...), on the floor, outside, inside -- in fact, just about anywhere.

So -- you say -- can ebooks, on an eReader.

Well, yes. But...

When your small child, who has trouble grasping the idea that this small chunk of apparently inert plastic is valuable beyond it's content, and should not be left in any of the above reading locations -- wanders off and leaves the eBook reader (which contains all of the other books, too) in one of their more unusual haunts, it's a real pain in the arse -- at the least. When they leave a physical book somewhere that can't be found, or will get stood on inadvertently, or have something spilled on it, it's probably going to be a bit inconvenient -- at the most.

The image I am getting of Midwich-Cuckoo-children of the future sitting calmly with their eReaders or before computer screens frankly gives me the creeps.

There should should be a sense of freedom and adventure in discovering reading -- I just don't see that with ebooks.

(Sorry, wandered kinda off topic there.)


At least here in the US, libraries are often the last resort computer and net access for the homeless and unemployed. Curtailing hours and closing library branches results in less access for those groups, so there's an immediate economic, social, and educational effect on the lower classes.

And I think Charlie is right about the need for libraries, at least for the next generation or two while the state of reading and web-surfing technology is still changing rapidly, and while large amounts of the total human corpus is not yet available online. Anecdotally, I got a library card at the age of 8, when my regular checkouts on my parents' cards reached the maximum number of books allowed per visit (12, as I recall). And at the age of 11 I became a frequenter of the central library in Philadelphia (requiring a bus and subway trip of about 45 minutes each way) (and yes, that's the library that Ben Franklin founded), where I learned an immense amount about subjects not covered in school by browsing the tens of thousands of books on the open shelves.

The only short-term solution I've seen so far is for the voters to take action on their own. Here in Portland we have a very good library system well supported by the public (you have to have something to do in the winter when we never see the sun, and reading is one popular choice). Several times in the last 20 years when the city and county governments, which fund the library, have cut back, we've voted for initiatives that we put on the ballot to increase taxes for funding specifically for the library.


It's worth reiterating that decisions on library funding, including whether to keep libraries open at all, are the responsibility of local government. Now, central government's deficit reduction strategy does include significant cuts to their grants to local government, and that does mean local government has a tougher time of it than hitherto, but even in hard times there are choices to be made.

To the best of my knowledge, not one Liberal Democrat controlled council has closed libraries (or Sure Start centres, come to that). That's an expression of their political priorities. Councils run by other parties, with other priorities, have closed libraries (and indeed Sure Start centres).

The message here is that local government matters, and that voting in local elections is important. Turnout in purely local elections is generally pretty poor, largely because people don't believe it matters who is in charge at that level. But the issue of library closures indicates that, despite the real reduction in local government powers since Thatcher, which party controls your local council can still make a big difference to local services that you value.


My local libraries (Ealing, London) have been modified to make disabled access easier.This has reduced the Shelf space by about one third*.And they've installed a coffee bar in one. They are certainly buying fewer books and reducing opening hours. So I've hardly been using the libraries. * No offence to the disabled.


if the drop in my PLR loans reflects library closures, then we have just slammed the door in the face of a new generation of readers. I got my start reading fiction from my local library; the voracious reading habits of a bookish child aren't easily supported from a family budget under strain from elsewhere during a time of cuts. I hate to think what the long term outcome of this short-term policy is going to be, but I don't believe any good will come of it.

Lots of assumptions in this statement that really should be unpacked at some point.

While I also used a library to get started on my reading when I was a child, that was because England had few bookstores (W H Smith being the primary high street one), so you needed a library. The local library also carried recent newspapers and reference books.

Fast forward to today. Books are only one, relatively minor, form of entertainment to occupy eyeballs. Kids today have new forms, e.g. videogames, plus a host of other forms of entertainment that have arrived in teh past 50 years. If demand for books declines, then it makes sense that so will supply and suppliers. libraries included. In the US today, you can walk the length of most shopping malls and not find a single vendor of anything to read - no bookstore or newspaper or magazine vendor. If you need to read, you need your own supply of material or access to same.

The newspaper and reference sections of libraries are largely supplanted by online sources. So that function is pretty much obsolete.

Yes, there is a role for libraries today, but I think it is clearly less about book lending than to find new social utility - e.g. internet access, a haven of quiet, etc. Books are the excuse, not the utility.

Is this a problem? I don't know. There has been much wringing of hands over the decline in readership, especially of "literature", at the same time as others have shown that reading anything - text messages, videogame instructions, magazines and even, gasp books is not in decline. I think the figures in the US are that the average person reads one book per year. I would guess that everyone who comments on this blog in strongly pulling up their local average to compensate.


martin @ 29 NO See my comment about my local Labour council. After all, reading, and all of "the Arts" are ELITIST, and we can't have that can we?


As to why folks don't associate tax cuts with library closings, I think the few notes I've seen here don't understand how people work.

By aggregating taxes and then spreading them around as "needed" things that need taxes for support get the money somewhat more efficiently, (and many times way more), than if you paid for each service. But this mentally disconnects the payment of taxes from the delivery of services. So services people don't want/need/like become the object of their ire, while the things they do like seem to spring up if by magic.

I tend to think that itemizing tax bills at a reasonbly high level would be a big step forward in eliminating this. And no, local and state budgets (in the US) are not very transparent as to where the money goes and why. My local government does a somewhat respectable job of informing people about things they have to do due to regulations by putting a newsletter in the water bills. Since most households get a water bill from the city run water service this is a fairly good distribution system.


IIRC currently the govt spends around 50% of GDP Does anyone here NOT consider that to be too much?


I don't. The state is the best provider of many services.


The classic way of cutting back on library costs has been to cut hours. However, the last hour of any opening period will almost always see a decline in user numbers, so providing a spurious rationale for trimming that hour based on lack of use. Guess what, the new last hour also shows lower levels of use! We are now reaching the point where library hours simply don't match when users need them to be open so triggering further decline. Couple that with declining funds to buy books, centralised buying decisions so stock doesn't match local demand and you have s self sustaining and potentially catastrophic collapse.


I that case, why not 60%? 70% 80%?


I used to think that as well, but the facts appear otherwise:

The above chart shows UK gvt spending as a % of GDP, and it has been somewhere around 36 to 43% since WW2. The 50% thing is likely propaganda from anti-government people, or based on a different way of crunching the figures.

As we are seeing with the current economic suicide by the condems, the withdrawal of government spending from actually employing people is causing higher unemployment, poorer services and increased spending on benefits. Ultimately harming any possible recovery.

The disturbing thing about labour politicians not caring about libraries is how they ignore the part libraries and the fight for them and education played in the growth of the labour movement. Basically there's hardly a labour politician worthy of the name, they've either been taken over by external vested interests or are smitten with the ideals of managerialism, which as we all know don't work outwith certain restricted forms.


"The 50% thing is likely propaganda from anti-government people"

Last year it was a bit over 47%, with 50% projected for 2012


And no, that is not necessarily too much. You seem to be trying to take a stand on something without telling us what it is, or taking into account the relativity within the fincancial system.

And if you don't like the link above, how about this one: Where public spending has crept nearer 50% in the last 2 years solely because of all the financial crap that has been going on, and is otherwise usually around 405 or so.


So perhaps the question for you is, why should gvt spending as a % of GDP stay at 40%? For instance, according to one list I saw, based on 2007 data it claimed the UK was spending 50%, and Sweden was spending 58%. Sweden, as we all know is such a basket case...


J. K. Rowling : ( you have J. J. Rowling )


"The problem with the first statement is that politicians are short-sighted, in general, and don't expect their careers to last. Decisions you make more than year (possibly that should be more like 6 months) before reelection won't matter for your chances of being reelected in general, so there's no reward for thinking past the next 4 years or so, possibly not past the next 6 months or so."

That's not the case in the US, if you don't get bogged down in old, inaccurate terminology and intentional obfuscation. It's really clear at the highest levels -- the HOR has an incumbency rate that varies around 95%, and the Senate 90%. That's a guarantee of a long career.

And if you lose, you have a future career in lobbying -- Dodd lost his Senate seat after 30 years (! short term my ...) for flagrant corruption. What happened? He is now make +$1 million as the lead man for SOPA!

Bullshit, short-term thinking. There's a man who has been looking out after his own long-term interest for a very, very long time.

The problem is that politicians self-interest doesn't align with the people they notionally represent --- aka, democracy as farce. It's not lack of wisdom, not caricatures of brain-dead folks who think about the next six months --- Dodd was more than willing to think past his next election, giving up his seat in exchange for advancing the interest of his cronies who then in the long-term are paying back the favor.

The same is true for staffers. At local levels, careers are intertwined political/business careers. Folks think long-term -- in their own interest, which often diverge from those they represent.

--- And no, I'm not assuming homogeneity. I'm counterposing interests. If the political class did in fact represent a far-sighted population, then there would be political conflict, not "short-sighted" behavior.

It's not stupidity. It's not irrationality. It's not chaotic behavior. It's not any of those excuses, that take responsibility away from the actual players. The caricatures are one more way of fooling folks.


Are you referring to the current British parliament (which is not an "administration") or the US one?


Kindle-style devices still aren't cheap and ubiquitous enough that people would regularly buy them for kids,

In the UK, you've got to factor in (a) sales tax (VAT) at 20%, and (b) "Rip-Off Britain" -- the surcharge we pay for importing shit because we live on an island and the shippers have a choke-hold on the market. So a Kindle Touch that sells in the USA for $99 sells in the UK for £89 -- or US $138.

You also have to factor in lower median incomes, the demographic slope that tends to place children disproportionately in low-income families, and a reduced range of [legal] ebooks on offer at higher prices than in the USA (VAT applies to ebooks but not to paper books; a typical paperback in the UK is £8.99 against $7.99 in the USA -- getting close to double the price).


I that case, why not 60%? 70% 80%?

Indeed, why not? Throwing in arbitrary numbers without any detail on how much is being spent on what is rather pointless.


It's really clear at the highest levels -- the HOR has an incumbency rate that varies around 95%, and the Senate 90%. That's a guarantee of a long career.

It's much, lower in the UK, which isn't gerrymandered to fuck in the same way as the US Senate (and to a lesser extent, Congress). Up to 59% of UK commons constituencies are safe seats; the equivalent in the USA is as noted around 90-95%. Put it this way, in a landslide year no seat is safe.

Another issue in the UK is the lack of a statutory fixed election cycle. If a vote of no confidence is lost by the government, parliament is dissolved and goes to the country at 8-12 weeks' notice. While the ConDems have committed to not holding an election until 60 months' after the previous one (the upper limit), this is merely a gentlemens agreement and not a constitutionally binding rule. Therefore all MPs must be able, in principle, to go straight into a two-to-three month election campaign at any time.


Um, to clarify, you can gerrymander the House of Representatives, not the Senate. Each state elects two senators, and their districts are the entire state. Congresscritters represent localities. Not that there weren't (and aren't) fights about state's boundaries (see West Virginia and Utah as prime examples). In general, states haven't been gerrymandered since around 1900 or so.


I'm another that doesn't automatically look at the government spending 50% of GDP and think "that's too much."

I like having a government that pays for education - I would like them to fund university level education properly too. I like having them pay for the NHS. I like having a welfare system. I could live without an armed services but I'll accept that the government can't. A combined armed services big enough to provide security against invasion and support whatever other ambitions - Afghanistan, Libya at the moment, Iraq, Kosovo, etc. recently - they may have will come from central funding. The list probably should have more things on it too, but that's a reasonable start.

There are several countries - lots of scandinavia for example - where I'd happily live that seem to spend appreciably more than 50% of GDP through their governments. The most obvious example of "really small government" I know, you couldn't pay me to move there. So why is it a bad thing?


As someone else noted, the poor and unemployed use libraries more, and I've noticed that in our local library, the skin color of the children using the library to study appears darker than the average of our community.

Is this good? No. Rather, it's another indication of what one researcher called The New Jim Crow. Taking drugs while melanistically enhanced is a more imprisonable offense in the US than simply taking drugs (e.g. black men go to prison and deal with lifelong felon labels, white men get a misdemeanor unless they're poor or talk back). Similarly, libraries help the poor and minorities get ahead, which is something Americans have always had trouble with, especially if those Americans are stupid, white, and insecure.

Finally, the argument I always hear is that: "It's libraries or safety. You want us to shut down our fire stations and let felons walk the streets? Fine, we'll keep your precious libraries open." It's always worth pointing out to the braying politicians saying this that we'd have fewer kids setting fires if they were busy surfing the web in the library, if only because it makes the totalitarian BS of public security theater rhetoric even more apparent.

Just remember, as Sir PTerry said, the nice thing about being the underdog in a dogfight is the fine selection of dangling targets you can bite.


I don't know how common my profile is -

I have great internet access both at home and at work.

I spend my discretionary income in the big book chains, the local small new book stores, and the used book nooks.

I look forward to my every-couple-of-weeks trip to the library more than a trip to the pub, and feel good about paying library fines.

Our local politicos have closed one library and cut hours for the other, and I need to echo the "a library is where people without internet access go to get access".


If nothing else, Amazon will generally send you a sample of the first chapter or so of the book. It also has a recommendation system, showing what people who bought what you bought also liked. Or you can just go browsing by genre. Think of it as browsing wikipedia links, but with books.

Admittedly, the results of that can get a little...incestuous. "Like Charles Stross? Here's another few Scottish science fiction authors you might like." (What on earth's with that, by the way? That country's doing sci fi like France does cheese).


"Does anyone know what actual kids who like to read a lot do? Do they still read most everything from paper, or will they download stuff and read it off the family PC if they want it and can't easily get a paperback?"

Kids under 3rd grade or so seem to still be reading from physical picture books.

Most of the kids i know that are avid readers and older then third grade have an ereader or read off their phones, and are pretty much done with physical books. The Basic kindle is cheap enough now where it is within striking range for most families.

I only have direct experience with three, but they are all lower middle class families from different parts of the country.


In our town, we voted for a library district over ten years ago, because our local government would let us vote on library levies, and then hijack the money for other purposes. This suggestion is being made once again (people, people, if you want a jail vote for ITS levy, even if you hate the sheriff, though I can't actually blame them on that one).

Some letters to the editor have been printed pointing out the folly of cutting the library when the unemployment rate is over 12% in our county. I plan to write one soon myself reminding people why we have a library district in the first place.

And will be prepared to do 'dialing for votes' the way I did when we had to pass the library district. Yes, yes, a neighboring county has Vast Sums in their reserves and no public library (its remains is being run by volunteers, good luck with that). But as they used to say, penny wise, pound foolish.


In my limited experience with children and books recently, libraries are popular with children who are learning to read or have learnt in the last few years because they have a wide selection of bright books with pictures and words. You can't mimic the experience of a book with pictures and words using an e-reader.
Of course as they get older this advantage fades, but as I mentioned above re. the Private Eye articles on the subject, libraries are still remendously popular across the UK.


How do I choose e-books?

Well partly, it's the same situation I found myself in with music when CDs came out - the bulk of my purchases in that period were things I already owned on vinyl, or new releases by the same. I've spent a great deal over the years re-buying various works in paperback, epub, CD, VHS, DVD etc.

For new writers, I might read a review or an online discussion - it's because of repeated mentions, especially at the SFX forum, that I discovered Joe Abercrombie. If a TV series or movie is made of a book, I try to read the book before I see the film, so the author's version is foremost in my mind.

I try to read all the Hugo nominees.

And then there are books I don't really like but everyone's banging on about, and I feel left out - which explains why I've read stuff by the execrable Dan Brown.

I've never found Amazon's recommendations that useful to me - when looking at works by Asa Briggs, David Starkey was recommended as somehow similar.

For a very long discussion about recent books which might be intersting, you could do worse than start here -


I really like librarything's recommendation (, they run off your whole library and then compare to other people's whole library's so it is a lot more accurate

They also let you find library's that are like yours and browse them, or subscribe to them so you get notified when people add books

the downside with them is you have to enter in isbn codes for your whole library, or at least enough of it to get a read on your favorites


Actually the fixed-term Parliaments rule brought in by the Coalition is a statutory provision (Fixed-term Parliaments Act). You're correct that it's not a constitutional provision, or at least no more so than any other statute, and so could be over-turned by a future Parliament, but the principle thay Parliament cannot bind its successors is just about the only entrenched constitutional principle the UK has!

And yes, Parliament can still be dissolved after a loss of confidence but IIRC the new law does enact the principle that Brenda should try to find an alternative majority in the Commons first, rather than go straight to a dissolution.

Whatever else, it's a lot better than what we had before. Whatever you, or I, might think of the Coalition, this is definitely one to their credit in my opinion.


Actually it's traditional to refer to governments in Britain as the "$PMSURNAME Administration" or the "$PMSURNAME Ministry". One of the many things the Americans inherited from us, but is less-/no longer-used in the UK nowadays, like the word "gotten".


"It's much, lower in the UK, which isn't gerrymandered to fuck in the same way as the US Senate (and to a lesser extent, Congress)."

Well, the US Senate is gerrymandered in terms of long-term political influence -- it's a multi-century gerrymandering to protect certain interests (and Chris Dodd rears his ugly head again). The HOR is gerrymandered on a 10 year cycle. It's what the Founders wanted!

The Senate has actually a lower incumbency than the HOR -- probably because their influence is so high individually, that after a few cycles, you'd be insane to not just run for President, take over a company or became a mega-lobbyist.

Re: Parliament -- what is the UK politician lifecycle? Do folks follow the same revolving door as here -- a few years in the legislature, back to lobbying and management, back to government to write their own regulations? At least in the US, that's the real political career -- the interchange between public and private sector positions, which drives what the public sector recognizes as "long-term interest".

What's good for GM is good for America, don't you know?


On the Sunshine Coast on BC, the government cut the employment office because you could do everything online. If you don't have a computer, you can go to the library.

Now they're cutting the library, so to fill the forms you need to fill (that say, basically, that you're still looking for work) you need to take up to a three hour bus trip, each way. Of course, if you have a friend with the internet you don't, but that presupposes your friends all have jobs that let them afford computers and cable…


If I hadn't seen a copy of The Jennifer Morgue on a shelf at my local library and gotten curious about the title, I would never have heard of Charles Stross. So there's that.


"Howdy" - England circa 1630CE


Our system is probably a little more complex. And believe it or not a fair number of politicians are still in it because they think it an important job doing their best for the country and their constituents.

But things changed over the last 30 years, there is now a decided political class in charge of all three main parties. They generally go to a private or good quality high school, then university where they study something like political economy. Whilst at university they attach themselves to one party or another and play a part in student politics. After that they get tapped for/ suck up and get a job as a researcher or suchlike. After a a few years of such an insiders job they move on up, and eventually stand as MP's, often in safe seats or are parachuted into place. Hence the insane youth of a lot of important people these days.

On the other hand that describes the real political I want to get to the top power hungry maniacs. Behind them are hundreds of back benchers of varying ability, quality, honesty and purpose. And background, although the days of non-political people standing are pretty much gone. Almost nobody in top ranks of the major parties have had a real job, and in the case of the Conservatives most are rich through inheritance or went to the right schools.

Anyway, the older style political people tended to stay as MP's for as long as they could get elected, and if they failed they'd be looked after by their party. The new style people tend to get jobs in think tanks and multiple directorships with companies linked to what their last job was, e.g. David Blunkett, a very dangerous home secretary, is retained by some 'security' company, I forget who. Armed forces ministers get jobs with arms companies, health ministers get jobs with private healthcare companies etc.
It isn't as great a carousel as you describe it, and the top job as Prime minister has to come through the party.
I can't sensibly describe the actual or potential corruption on Charlie's blog because that would fall foul of the libel laws concern that he has. If you look up Private Eye magazine, their website sometimes has some articles on it, or if you ever come to the UK, buy a copy and you'll see how it works.

Essentially we've gone through a period where the establishment was weakened by the actions of pure capitalism and social democracy. Unfortunately international capitalism has then siezed hold of every political party so that social democracy hasn't got a look in and the establishment are mollified as long as someone feeds them their dividends. Much of the establishment married into or set up shop in the plutocracy anyway. Those who didn't are left with some land and a crumbling house, but many still hark back to the good old days. Meanwhile the privatisation agenda with its asset stripping and ripping off the taxpayer will continue.


"And believe it or not a fair number of politicians are still in it because they think it an important job doing their best for the country and their constituents."

Agreed. The problem is that fixing what's wrong will take draconian action on separating the political process from Big Money. Advocating doing what is necessary makes one an "extremist" and nobody is going to put one of them in charge of anything.


...50% of GDP... Does anyone here NOT consider that to be too much?

Hmmm... that's a tricky and interesting question. What is meant by "too much"?

I would say it largely depends on what you get for it. Providing you are receiving good value for that then hell yes. One of the things I struggle with as a US tax payer (without representation, ironic eh?) is the piss poor level of services you get for that money. Healthcare costs are enormous, and we have good insurance; our local roads are a terrible mess (somebody actually put up a shrine to hubcabs and lost number plates at one pothole); infrastructure like bridges, telecoms and other stuff doesn't work or needed fixing a few decades ago etc...

I don't know what the % is, but I think there should be adequate coverage for all for healthcare, decent infrastructure for commerce, a non-corrupt administration and security for all that's non-intrusive and maximises sane liberties.

Funny thing, as I was explaining to a friend yesterday, I think these are quite conservative positions to hold.


Let's not be downhearted. Britain will muddle through in the end. Though I fear that if this goes on you will all end up in tenements, lending each other dog-eared copies of old books, like they do in France, Germany and pretty much everywhere else in library-less Europe, South of Scandinavia.

The Scandinavians still believe in librairies because they feel those institutions are closely tied to the survival of their unique national languages and thus their identities, their sense of self.


Dirk, I believe you're a Bedford (*) man? And therefore you're "represented" by Nadine Dorries. Heh. Good luck with that.

Mind you, I've got Caroline Lucas as my MP and in my opinion she's as bad as Dorries, in a different direction. And that's the problem. The maniacs, cliques and extremists are dominating politics simply by making party meetings so unpleasant and or tedious that very few "normal" people can stand it.

(*) I'm ex-Bedford - haven't been there for a few years, but I spent much of my early childhood in Cardington, practically in the shadows of No 1 and No 2 Sheds, and one grandfather was a military engineer who built the Royal Engineers Bridge, and was later a foreman at Stewartby brickworks. And for a couple of months I lived in near Jubilee Park while working at the so-called, self-styled "university" of Luton (great staff, good facilities, terrible students, awful town). Ah, Luton, if you were a person, only your mother would love you.


"And therefore you're "represented" by Nadine Dorries. "

No, the other one, Richard Fuller. Still Conservative. Last election was the only time I have ever voted for them, and that was to get the Blair clone out.

As for your description of insider politics, I can well believe that of the Labour party. The Tories are rather quieter in a slightly snobbish fashion. LibDems are weird in a decent manner. The only other party that I have been a member of (apart from the Consensus) was the Greens - totally ineffective in my experience - but that was 30 years ago.

80: 34 - No-one even attempted an answer to this while I was off-line!!?

Ok, the post about "the Scots reaching Derby last time" was a quip about the 1745 Jacobite uprising. Whilst geographically accurate, it rather ignores the fact that the Jacobite risings were a series of armed disputes between the Houses of Stewart and Hanover about which of them should get the throne of the UK, and nothing whatever to do with Scottish independance.


That's true as far as it goes. IME it's often the case that stuff manufactured in the UK and sold at a sticker price of £X is sold in the Colonies ;-) at a sticker price of US$2X (plus Sales Tax if applies).


Dirk @ Phil @ 79 ... "Nadine Dorries" .... ARRRGGGH! For further idiocies about this woman, and, if you are erm, "ungodly" TRY HERE (Current top article) for some fun - be prepared for people quoting ancient myths as if they were true. [ And no, I DO NOT MEAN Cthulu! ]

As for the Lem-o-Crats, well, not round here, I'm afraid. Followers of Dark-Ages camelherders' myths trying to gain power. As opposed to Dorries, who has Bronze-Age camelherders' myths on her supposed brain, oh dear. Before that we had the local Lem councillor who was functionally illiterate, whilst they were in favour of more education - I kid you not.


Modern libraries aren't just randomly grabbing books off the shelves to toss in the incinerator. Due to online and computer-based catalogs, they know which books are popular and which ones, well... aren't.

When you look through the local "to be disposed of" stacks, you don't find a lot of great classics, despite the horror stories. You get a lot of self-published twaddle, a whole lot of technical books that are pretty much useless, and a smattering of "pop" titles from ten years ago. Really old books of any kind tend to get run past a bunch of different people to see if they're worth keeping, sending off to a local university, or putting up for serious bids to collectors.

Our local library system has in-library used book stores - you get nice hardcovers with a bit of wear for $1 to $3, and ragged paperbacks for less than a dollar. Every book that gets pulled from the shelves spends some time in the book store, with a regular flow of customers picking through for good reads. Once every six months or so, they have an even more aggressive sale, with books at half price or less. The leftovers after that? "Sent away."

It's like the dog pound. Some strays never get adopted, and you can't keep them all.

Sure, like most bibliophiles, I have that internal cringe when I see books being thrown out or destroyed, but that's all you CAN do with some of them. The big reference libraries will have copies of the important (and not important at all except to scholars) titles, but why keep four different sequential editions of "HTML 1.0 for Dummies," or those two extra copies of "How to Beat Nintendo Games"? How about those twenty consecutive years of Frommer's annual travel guides to countries that don't exist any more?

Does your local library system really need four copies of "Madonna : an intimate biography"? Forever?

There are a half-million new books published in English each year. Which ones stay, and which ones end up in the dump?


Is 50% of GDP too much for the state to spend?

The answer might depend on how much GDP was.


Thanks c, unholy guy etc - and I can see these recommendations are useful. But what about the random? the sudden thought of "oh that looks interesting" which is totally outside your normal parameters - like Dean?

I'm currently reading Simon Schama's collected essays and journalism and enjoying it. NOTHING in my previous library habit would suggest this. I also have an Ian Rankin out. I've tried his before and not really got on (its me not him!) but I thought I'd give it another go.

I certainly wouldn't spend money to find out if we were more compatible. (I do spend money on books, lots of books - the library is the only way the house does not become more overrun than it is currently - I expect to grow up to be one of those elderly people crushed to death by the sheer weight of stuff and eaten by their cats.)


Or, as per the already cited "Cracked" article, does anyone other than a few antiquarian collectors really want a, say, 1890 imprint of Moby Dick when you can get a Wordsworth classics version if you just want to read the book, and the actual "first edition" is retained?


Children, unemployed, pensioners ... and the working poor.

I worked in a very low paid job in England many years ago. If I hadn't had access to a decent local library, I'd not have been able to read regularly. That library helped me to keep my brain alive until I could move on to something better. Private internet access was unavailable then, but my income would not have supported it anyway. Another small data point in favour of libraries.

Actually, the UK's library system is one of the better things about the country. Compare with, say, Germany's libraries, where you have to pay to become a member, and then pay each time you borrow (hire) books. It's the same in Austria. In the German city in which I spend half my time, the main library never seems to get particularly busy (my local library is usually closed and only ever seems to have the occasional schoolchild in it when it is open).

Also, there is a small-scale environmental and space benefit to libraries, in much the same way as car-sharing has benefits compared with individual car ownership.


Is that an increase in government expenditure, or a collapsing economy?

And how does the change compare to the size of the error bars in tthe predictions?


Given the economic indicators of Recession and Increasing_Unemployment, I'd suggest that it's a mixture of lower tax income and increased social security expenditures.

The newspaper and reference sections of libraries are largely supplanted by online sources. So that function is pretty much obsolete.

Last year I was researching material on Mills Observatory in Dundee. First port of call was Wikipedia, of course. It soon became obvious that all the results on Google were the source of the Wikipedia page. So, down to the Central Library. First difference was a friendly (they are all friendly) librarian who knew exactly where to look to get me what I needed.

Second difference was the wealth of documents, newspaper articles, chapters in local history books and brochures dating back to 1935 absolutely none of which the internet has any idea even exists.

But by far the greatest difference from a mere online search was a compiled book of newspaper clippings in whose pages was the actual sheet of paper which had been attached as a signpost to the gate at the bottom of the hill on the Observatory's opening night.

Rely on online sources only and you'll miss out on a huge range of knowledge and not even know that you're doing so.


"Behind them are hundreds of back benchers of varying ability, quality, honesty and purpose. And background, although the days of non-political people standing are pretty much gone. "

You might recall the ConDemn coalition floating the idea that when long standing incumbents in safe seats (and I seem to recall that this came out as some 200 or so consituencues) stood down the replacement candidate (and hence almost certainly MP) should be selected in some for of "Open Primary".

You might also recall that the Conservatives actually did this...

...before the last election and that the the candidate selected (a local GP with no previous involvement with the CP) went on to win the seat.

Strangely the not-so-dynamic duo seem to have gone right off the idea, possibly because Dr Wollaston has apparently turned out to be inconveniently independently minded, particularly on matters related to health and the NHS. I gather the idea has been kicked into the long grass of the next parliament on the grounds that the next election will take place with heavily revised constituency boundaries anyway...


Libraries are designed to be failures - hire staff in good times, mean its yet another attack being that they are inefficient. Libaries will always be up for closure.

It should be noted that both labour and conservatives have done horrid things to libraries.

As to Charlies books - my council refused to buy his latest laundry book, and Neal Stephenson's. I got them from a Kent library which is not local and cost me the lender extra fees.

Personally since i read more than one book a year i appreciate my library as i pay for it and if i bought all the books i read i'd have space problems.

I cannot take the people whom run libraries seriously. Being that i put up with a large amount of hassle on both newish and old books i do wonder if the public sector is not the right custodian since they dont do it very well it like its an employment scheme rather than a service.

My library has a shocking amount of space for cr*p american dvd's the reason to generate income. The appeal of a pink Barbie dvd to a child over a book means it is a point even the library staff get,

I like libraries, use them, but wonder about the people who run them on our behalf.



I went to the local library for the first time in over a year, to give them my new address. Had a bit of a browse and picked up (amongst other books) a copy of The Family Trade by our host.

Libraries are pretty cheap (too cheap, really) and provide more than we think. For those who whine about public spend / GDP they strike me as the wrong target, while defence soaks up billions and unemployment is at a 20 year high.

It is worrying that libraries are in decline, and as much as ebooks can replace then for some, there is something about a physical book. Not just a romantic attachment to 'stuff', but the way that we interact with them is different, and they do seem better for small kids.

Of course, remainder book shops are a cheap alternative, books and reading are being superceded by games and tv, our culture is becoming less interested in ideas as compared to gossip, and politicians will pander where they can.

Still, I value libraries (and I vow to visit the one in Rugby more often) and even though I am in the much maligned Labour party, I want to see them maintained and improved. As an aside, it was a local Labour member who organised the saving of a village library after the County decided to pull out. We aren't all anti-intellectual neanderthals you know


To be exact, an early election can occur either following a two thirds vote in the Commons for an early dissolution, or, if following a lost motion of confidence 14 days have elapsed without a new government being formed. Incidentally the latter is the only method of holding an early election available under the German Basic Law, this led to the CDU/CSU FDP coalition government in 1982 calling a motion of confidence in itself (only the government can call a motion of confidence) and then the cabinet not turning up.


Re: Road conditions.
That's partially a result of your climate and mostly a result of your state's spending priorities. With more road funding and lack of heavy freeze-thaw cycles, roads stay pretty good.


Freeze-thaw? In Seattle? The weather's been poor this week, but seriously, the climate is identical to the UK where, sad to say, the roads are MUCH better.

Yes, it is to do with spending priorities, which is more or less the point I was making. Not enough is spent on roads.


I stopped using the central Edinburgh library when they introduced those bloody awful self-service booths.

I wrote to the Council to complain about them, attempted to use them several times [a nerve-shreddingly crap experience] and finally just gave up after a panic attack left me putting a load of books back on the shelves.

the library went, in the space of a few days, from being my most visited place in the city to one which I will never return.


Most of the comments seem to be discussing the individual book reader's relationship to the library. What about the library's function as a place for socializing and learning with like-minded people?

I live in rural upstate New York, where the two closest libraries are almost a 15 minute drive away. The libraries offer book discussion clubs, occasional film nights, local history repository, pre-school story hours, lectures, meeting places for the Scouts, and senior citizens, even knitting groups and board game nights. These services are not on the radar in the Kindle and Wikipedia discussions, but encourage a wide range of patrons to value the library.


I think the future of libraries is not books


As to the local used book resources and patronage here in the rural and suburban NorthEast US, I can give a 45 year perspective, having started patronizing used book sales in high school in the mid-sixties.

It wasn't something that attracted young people back then, and still isn't. You don't see the English majors so much as those who are voracious readers in a wide range. We have fundraising groups that hold occasional large used book sales once or twice a year. Some libraries have a space where they can open a book barn for sales a couple of times a month in the warmer months. While it's no longer the golden age of incredible finds, the sales keep the book supply circulating.

The used and rare book trade took a big hit with the advent of online selling, having been hit with a flood of cheap books undercutting sales by professionals. The rare book trade is getting older and greyer, as are their customers, and neither are being replaced. The flooding of the market may be finally slowing, so that prices can stablize to a level that can support professional booksellers making a living. But where that market is going at a time when e-readers are starting to be serious competition for the physical codex, is anybody's guess.


"I went to the local library for the first time in over a year, to give them my new address."

And there's your sign. The PLR payments aren't down because there are fewer libraries, or that a smaller percentage have Stross' work. At least, not entirely.

They're down because there are fewer people going to libraries. I live in a town of 120,000 people. In the library, whenever I visit, there are typically about a dozen people, most of them using the internet machines. That's less than one half-hour visit, per person, per year.

I never go. If there's a book I want to read, I buy it. My wife goes - but mostly for the ebooks and audio books.

Median salary in this area for librarians is about $55k. [From ]

There are twenty-three employees: - not all are librarians, but that's a reasonable median wage.

So it costs over $1,200,000 in wages alone, each year to run it. About $10/person living here, or about $20/hour for their average use of it.

That's not counting the costs for buying, maintaining, cleaning, updating, decorating and running the building, computers, and media. I suspect wages are the biggest cost with the library anyway. I hope. So the costs above should be in the right ballpark.

Is $10/year a lot? Or is it value for money? I dunno.

Even in my childhood, I remember libraries as being commercially dead zones. There'd be maybe a couple of kids in the kids' section, but I'd be the only person stalking the stacks and carousels in the adult section. I could fill my bag with books to take home each week, and there was never a book in a series that was "out"... because I was one of their very few users. Perhaps that's just the sign of a Welsh mining town for you, I don't know.


"I think the future of libraries is not books"

bingo. Assuming there is a future for libraries of course


Much of what you write here is speculative, but closing libraries is worrying. I would like to point out that opening or closing libraries is exclusively the domain of local councils, and not something that the UK parliament has any involvement in, so exactly what is happening here varies massively depending on what part of the country you are in.

I have heard a number of highly annoying tales of councils that are spending less money, keeping council tax low, increasing their cash reserves by more than in previous years (aka, running a larger profit), and yet still closing libraries. None of them have been my council, so I don't have any direct say in their actions, but the people responsible for such actions need to be unelected - there is no economic justification for that sort of thing!

(Curiously, these have mostly been Labour councils, not Tory ones. I cannot reconcile this with the stated political positions of the parties)

I would like to get to the bottom of exactly what's going on with PLR here. Do you have/can you get any more details on where the money is coming from, aside from the final figure?


Some councils are definitely not closing any libraries; Edinburgh, for example, is actually adding one. However, Edinburgh is (a) in Scotland (different spending regime) and (b) a UNESCO City of Literature, which might make a slight difference.

Labour councils in England are typically elected by poorer, more urban communities relative to conservatives (wealthier, suburban or rural communities). Poor/urban will in turn mean more people using social services at the same time as fewer people paying council tax, so they have more demands on their income and less money per capita.

Now, unlike the USA, British local government is directly funded from central government revenue to the tune of 40-60% of their income -- it's a central grant. But that grant is being squeezed. And never in a bazillion years would it occur to Eric Pickles to divert money from Labour voting areas to ease the pain of Conservative voters, in other words, to use central government control over local government revenue as a party political lever. (That never happened. Not once. Especially not in the 1980s and 1990s, cough, Thatcher, cough, Poll Tax, cough Dame Shirley Porter, cough.)

NB: Please read the previous paragraph through your irony-viewing goggles.

I've got a bit of sympathy for a council caught in this cleft stick. The bastards in Westminster are deliberately squeezing you because you are a member of the opposition party and they've got your balls in a fiscal vice. You have a buttload of infrastructure that needs repair -- roads leading to hospitals, for example, or schools -- lots of wages to pay, and a desperately poor council estate that is in danger of collapse if you don't keep maintaining it. You have a statutory duty to house the homeless, and you've got too many of them because your residents are poor and, increasingly, unemployed and not making their rent payments. Where are you going to make cuts -- road maintenance? Schools? Juggling homeless people through hostels (and note that you'll be crucified if you drop either of the latter two)? Or libraries? Which are an easy target and besides, free up valuable capital because they're useful real estate.

The need for libraries is a long-term requirement, and too many councillors are fighting fires from day to day to look beyond the end of the current financial year. Especially Labour councils. Because the central government beatings will continue until the voters learn the error of their non-conservative-voting ways.


Long time Charlie Stross fan - fiction and blog - first time I've posted. Thought I'd give an American (highly subjective) perspective. Whatever your politics I think we can all agree things aren't going well. However, the library systems I'm familiar with all seem to be doing well. Money's tight, and as previous posters pointed out, most of the funding is local.

I grew up in rural and urban Midwest areas, always had great libraries. Spent most of the last 20 years in Broward county in South Fl. They have fabulous libraries - I too spend stupid money on Amazon - but still visit libraries regularly, and they're always very crowded and busy, both before and after the current economic unpleasantness. So much so I tended to avoid them on weekends. This is in a town where it's not unusual for a teenager to get a 35000 dollar car for a birthday present (even though their neighbor's house is in foreclosure). Think of Broward as the (American) liberal epicenter of Florida.

The past 2 years I've been in rural Kentucky (think God, Guns, and Country - pick the order). Folks are generally poor. Yet the county I live in has just built a gorgeous new library, and it's usually busy. Their collection isn't large, but they can get you any book published through inter library loans. This is largely through local taxes and private donations. And in an area where I have to drive 10 miles (16km?) to get groceries. The average income is about 1/3 the US avg. (Off the top of my head, don't quote me.) They also have bookmobiles (libraries in modified buses) which regularly visit areas even more - you can call ahead (or via web) and have them bring any book you want on their next visit.

And yes, Charlie, they your books.

Anyway, despite economic and technological hits, I think libraries are holding their own here and I hope they always do.

Another thing I really like about the Midwest is used bookstores, you can buy sell or trade. They're as common as liguor stores.


sorry, a little editing

even more - should be - even more rural

they your books - should be - they have your books


Lest anyone think that, here in the UK, this is merely an academic issue.. It really is much as our host says ...

" When the budget is cut, hard choices are made. Do you cut healthcare spending, or essential provision for the severely disabled (and those unable to work because there are no jobs to go round)? Or do you cut fripperies, such as the maintenance budget for public parks or libraries?

".... ay there's the rub." all right.

The price that is paid is hereafter ...

" So How Am I? Well I can confirm categorically that Arbeit does not macht you frei.

Quite the opposite in fact. Far from "freeing" me, work has put me in a hospital bed chained with plastic tubes."

And our very gracious UK Lib/ Con men Government isn't all that bothered by this, beyond the usual public relations blather.

Free Books for the peasantry ? Paid for from the pockets of the Gentry? Oh The Horror!

In a democratic society the political class just doesn't dare say ..'why don't they just fuck off and die ? " but that's what it amounts to.


snap2grid wrote:

...Rely on online sources only and you'll miss out on a huge range of knowledge and not even know that you're doing so.

We're experiencing a form of inverse singularity, where everything that came before is becoming unrecognizable and unknowable, except for a subset of myths and data that happened to be short-term-memory-resident at the transition time.

There are those who understand that and are working to end it, but there are complications - the Google Books attempt to "scan everything" to get it electronically "on the record" and the whole authors / IP ownership kerfuffle that engendered, lots of one-off stuff that's not books, etc.


Road conditions in the US, particularly in the Snow Belt, are also a result of larger area plus, outside of the largest metro areas, almost an aversion to mass transit. Combine that with funding issues and you can have stark contrasts even within a metro area: around Indianapolis, for example, roads in suburban Hamilton County (population 275,000, median household income about $76,000) are relatively well kept, but in Marion County, home of Indianapolis proper (population 903,000, median income $41,000), roads are significantly worse.

Even though here, funding comes from national to state to local (in most cases), decisions at the national level can still bubble down to the local level, so what we get are the state and local leaders who decide that there isn't enough money at their level because they aren't getting as much federal money overall, so things will have to be cut, and whoops! Less money for libraries, sorry. So hours are cut and staff is cut ... and yet state and local cash reserves are building up for some reason.

It is a shame.


There's also the "I didn't know that existed" problem.

People will go to their local library, fail to find the book or item they were looking for, and leave. No questions, avoid the librarians, just look at the catalog and run. Or, more often, look at the catalog online and never bother going into a physical library at all.

"Inter-library loans? What's that? Really? That's nice, but I don't want to wait for a book."

The local university? No, that's just for college students... what? Most of them have programs to allow local residents check out books, and they have all of the technical journals that the public library never carried? Really?

Even in the online world, I keep running into otherwise smart and savvy people who don't know about Project Gutenberg.

There is another issue, though - due to extensions in copyright terms, there are huge numbers of titles out there that only exist in a few places and aren't able to be reprinted or converted to electronic form (the copyright owners are too hard to find, or are uninterested in the whole process).

The classic comedy/sex book "The Rape of the APE*" is becoming difficult to find. You either have to order a beat up used paperback from Amazon, or a very expensive used hardcover from (again) Amazon. It's a brilliantly funny book, and would probably sell a few hundred thousand copies in a new electronic version - but the copyright holders are sitting on their hands. It's becoming easier to find an electronic bootleg version than a reasonably-priced print one.


I've always thought that would be a good slogan over the door of McDonalds in Berlin: "Arbeit Macht Fries"


As a good example of the shenanigans that the Tories are pulling regarding local government funding in Labour-controlled areas, consider the following:

One of the first things that the Tory-led coalition did was to effectively cut funding for Sure Start early years provision, in spite of Shiny Dave's pledge to the contrary. Of this wasn't a straightforward cut, rather the existing £1.1Bn funding for Sure Start was rolled into the Early Intervention Grant funding (£2.5Bn), which was then cut to £2.2Bn. Sure Start funding is therefore not ringfenced, so many Labour councils have had to make cuts to Sure Start in order to protect other services provided from EIG money.

Of course, this didn't stop our local mendacious Tories in Southampton from running a campaign that blames cuts on Sure Start (and other services) in other areas on Labour.


Given that our marvellous government now has as policy "thou shalt work for free for our favoured corporate friends", might as well leave it as the original.


For a while, when there was a book I wanted to read, I bought it.

But houses grow no bigger with time, no more corners open up to put bookcases in; and the prospect of going to a reasonably well-organised Web site, saying that I wanted to read .Smiley's People., and getting an email in a week or so saying that I could pick it up in the new shiny library in the centre of Cambridge between the seller of marvellous Hereford cheese and the Apple Store, becomes a very appealing one. Into the centre of town I go once a week; buy rye bread, cheese, sliced medium-rare roast beef, return old books, collect new books.

Everyone's got a strategic book reserve, so it makes not the slightest difference whether a particular book turns up this week or next week, and if the book's particularly good you can always buy a copy to keep from Amazon. Kindle alters this a little, it's the perfection of one-click, but it's only taken me three months to learn that instantaneous delivery of a book that you then don't read for a fortnight isn't actually gaining you anything. Taking advantage of Amazon's no-quibble refund-for-a-week policy to let you use them as a lending library with short terms and exorbitant fines is at best uncivil to the authors.

I can still afford to buy any book I want to read; but I don't have to. So I make a vague note of how much it would have cost me, and aim to give that much to the library at the start of the year.


Remaindered book shops are in no sense a substitute for libraries; the cataloguing's awful, the selection is remarkably biased towards the contemporary, and frankly books are often remaindered for good to excellent reasons.

[ Cambridge had a noted remaindered bookshop Galloway&Porter with a surprisingly good reputation; it closed down a year or so back, and the consensus of my friends was that, while we all missed it, none of us could remember ever buying anything there ]


Parenthetically - because so many good points are being made that one more comment seems superfluous - many of you would probably enjoy Unshelved, a web comic by and about librarians.


Charlie, nice piece Greg, this is an image of the Carnegie Library in Camden,

If anyone wonders why I am so depressed about America's future this image is why

Funnily enough a lot of my Facebook friends thought it beautiful in some way regards



Many years ago I had a job on the staff at one of the University of California campuses, and I discovered the joys of having a six-story library especially for the physical and biological sciences a short walk from my office. Since then I haven't had such a perfect location, but I've been a fan of using whatever libraries were available, and inter-library loan when the library was really inconvenient.

And then a couple of years ago I discovered that my public library not only had a JSTOR subscription the I could access, but that I could use it online. As long as scientific journals and other periodicals and reference information are pay-walled by their publishers, libraries will have a useful virtual presence, even if budget cuts reduce their physical presence.


When our new main Library was moved to a old historic building they dumped a lot of old books so it would look good. It did not matter they said, we spent the money on computes. They are hip and modern. And we still have many books in the system. True, but they don't have what they had. Their idea is too look up a book and without seeing it order it from some other Library, then wait days or more for it. Maybe it's what you want. The Libraries are no longer run bu people who like books. If books are not checked out in so many months they are dumped. That's what happened to a bunch of books on labor my union gave them so they would have some books on it.


Has your union organized a scheme to have members check out books relevant to their interests regularly? While not subtle, it seems a fairly small group could game the system pretty easily.


d brown @ 119 That's what happened here - except they ENLARGED the old building with extensions, and put fewer books in total back in (!) HERE is a photo of the rear of the building - the new extension is on the left, and Here is an interior shot. 6 minutes from my front door.


Hi Charlie. This is only slightly related to the post at hand, but: In Australia, where I live, it looks as though actual creatives get the following breakdown: 93% to the publishing medium (for electronic things like itunes), most of the rest to the publisher, some of that to the agent, some tiny amount of that to the author. This is from looking at records based on music sales rather than books but I imagine it's broadly similar.

so: Can I send you ten bucks a year and get a copy of any books you publish? I'm happy to do this in years you don't publish, also, because whatever, I can afford it. It seems to me that you'd make a lot more money if I sent you a cheque (how quaint) or similar for $10 and stole your books than if I actually bought them (which I do. I have them all, except the MP series I can't find as ebooks). This doesn't pay for your editing and publishing costs, of course, but I'm less inclined to care about those people.

TL;DR I'd like to subscribe to your long-form, irregular newsletter and would pay to do so.


This is from looking at records based on music sales rather than books but I imagine it's broadly similar.

No it's not!

The breakdown in publishing is: 30-70% to the distribution channel (wholesalers/retailers or, the rest going through the publisher. But the author trousers between 7% and 15% of net receipts, so when the dust settles it should work out at a roughly even split of the profits between the publisher and the author. The author's agent is paid a 15% commission by the author, which gives them an incentive to shake down the publisher as hard as they can.

Upshot: the novelist makes a much higher proportion of the cover price than a musician does. On the other hand, sales are much, much lower -- probably an order of magnitude lower.

Give me a paying base of 10,000 folks paying AUS $20 a year, or maybe 30,000 folks paying AUS $7 a year (or around £5 a year and I'd be rather happy because I could then hire editorial/design/other support staff and self-publish a quality product. (The overheads of going from a finished and submitted manuscript to an actual book are non-trivial; it's not just a matter of throwing a Word file at Amazon.)


"On the other hand, the lower population density in rural areas makes infrastructure like libraries and such more difficult to get to...lowering its value."

OTOH, lower population density makes everything harder to get to, and especially private infrastructure. There might be a library in every county, even ones with low population, but the 'local' Wal-Mart might be in the next county.............


"And yet the Scotish voting system has returned a one-party absolute majority in the House, despite being almost gerrymandered to prevent that ever happening."

So the system was rigged to favor party not-A, but party A gets a massive majority, because they had enough support from the voters to override the handicap.

And you think that this is a mark against the Scottish system?


So the system was rigged to favor party not-A


The system was rigged to favour coalitions. That's not the same at all. In a system with three major and two or three minor parties, this should in theory result in consensus-based government. (Major: Labour, Lib-Dem, SNP. Minor: Conservative, Green, Socialist. Yes, we have three and a half socialist parties, the greens, and a couple of die-hard conservatives. Hell, we have more pandas than Conservative MPs.)

Anyway: if any one party in the Scottish system gains an absolute majority (as happened for Labour, early on, and now the SNP) it amounts to a ringing public endorsement and a genuine mandate, rather than merely indicating that fewer people voted against them (see Tony Blair's win in 2003, in which less than 20% of the total electorate voted to return a Labour majority in Westminster).


In my locale politicians seem to be relying more heavily on consultants (e.g., KPMG). What bothers me about this - apart from the cowardice of distancing themselves from potentially unpleasant news - is that such 'consultants' are often technical accounting/financial experts, they're not experts in evaluating social services needs or policy. Further, there doesn't appear to be any review of such expert reports to evaluate whether their recommendations in light of informed public debate were ultimately adopted and not a waste of tax-payer dollars.


I live in Vancouver BC., Canada. When our local branch or the Central branch are about to close, (9:00 PM usually) there are line ups at the checkout. The staff has to just about chase people out. Less people arriving close to closing time? I recently arrived at 10 minutes to closing to return some materials and check the holds shelf. It's not just me who does that, someone else came in right behind me to do the same thing.

There was a time when the city had to cut back on hours; there were protests at city hall.

Our library system is well supported by the city's population; the library supports many publicly beneficial activities.

The health of your local library system is a measure of the social health of your community. People have to put in the public effort to support their libraries in order to receive the benefits of a library.


" so I would like to ask those who have foregone the physical - how do you know what you're going to want to read? "

Oh, thats easy scan through Amazon and its counterparts on the web much as you scan through a public libraries shelves. Of course you know the sort of thing that you might like and you are aware that Amazon will be prone to spaming you with 'helpfull ' suggestions - that, in my case, are amazingly usless - but the principle of looking on line is no different to the old fashioned principle of looking along real physical shelving and on line is often more usful since you can look up future publications.

As an example I've just ordered several of Mike Careys ' Felix Castor ' Novels after having read the first in the series and this after a 'Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought ' reference and plot description ...

See what I mean? And of course I recommend them since I've bought the first three in the series and await delivery of the rest as published so far ....and you can Trust ME ..would I lie to you?


"Rip-Off Britain" -- the surcharge we pay for importing shit because we live on an island and the shippers have a choke-hold on the market.

Not just Britain, or being an island.

I live in Canada, and I wanted to buy the complete e2 series on DVD. In North America it's sold by PBS, who charge $5 shipping to a US address and $25 shipping to a Canadian one. (The US post office would charge $8, but PBS only uses a courier for international shipments). This was for the $75 boxed set — a single $20 DVD would cost $13 to ship.

It burns me because there is a cheaper way of shipping the items (the US post office), but companies won't use it. (And oddly, private enterprise seems to offer the same or worse service than the government department, at 3-5 times the cost. Explain to me about free market efficiencies again?)


ost of them have programs to allow local residents check out books, and they have all of the technical journals that the public library never carried? Really?

The University of Toronto (my local university) won't even allow you in the building if you aren't a student or employee. Alumni can purchase a library card (about $100 a year last time I checked) but if you're not an alumni you're out of luck.


UK specific hint: and your local reference library inter library loans. is a super index of UK University library holdings. One search, hundreds of specialist libraries and the British library.

Birmingham reference library (aka the plant pot, soon to be replaced) will do an inter-library loan for £2.50 if you are within the city limits.

I use this for some of the more recherche items I need to consult.


This seems to vary a lot from place to place. In the UK, for a variety of historical reasons, universities are actually remarkably open to the public. Libraries can be used, lectures attended and the like - although most libraries will not let you borrow without a service charge/membership fee. Once you have paid this you gain some access to all the facilities the library offers, including interlibrary loans, online journal subscription and the like.

Universities rarely advertise this of course but every time changes are discussed, the fact that the taxpayer funds a lot of the facilities is brought up to maintain the tradition.

Members of the public can be, and often are, kept out of practical labs, research labs and the like on the grounds of health and safety. That said, at the university where I did my undergraduate degree you could usually get in to any of the teaching labs unattended.

Other countries have very different approaches. If the university is entirely privately funded then keeping the rabble away, just like any other place that exclusively serves some segment of the population, is common. In the UK entry into various gentleman's clubs (The Diogenes Club of Sherlock fame say) is certainly restricted (although in these days rarely by gender despite their name).


"The University of Toronto (my local university) won't even allow you in the building if you aren't a student or employee."

That's unusual for modern public universities - our big local one (University of Central Florida) allows you to use the libraries for free, but charges a fee to check out books ($30 for six months, $60 for a year).

Most private universities in the US restrict visiting and borrowing by non-students. Harvard, for example, restricts visiting by non-students, and doesn't allow direct checkout of materials if you aren't affiliated with the university.


I suppose the "Mammon worshipers" might not be too disappointed with the loss of libraries, it would fit in with their desire of monetizing each use of media.


Hey, I bought books from G&P. I miss them.


at our local library the people are waiting out the front every day for it to of the only places to be warm, safe,comfortable and sociable in these times, without being obliged to spend money...increasingly hostile outdoor pulic spaces ...uncomfortable seating and blurring of boundaries with commercial space the main culprits....

138: 98 - That degree of use of the library as a public space is rare (where not impossible) in the UK. 131 - "Alumni" is a plural form: The singular that you wanted is "alumnus".

National Lampoon were way ahead of you in the 1970s. There's a fast food chain called Arby's, so it was Arby's Macht Fries. Not to mention Jackboot in the Box.

The main library in Amsterdam has been hugely busy the times I've been there, but it's national capital, a university town and the library's a quick bike ride from anywhere. As far as I can tell, the smaller district libraries are still open and being used too.


Always used to be a highlight of any time spent in Cambridge.

And the best place for a generalist is a bookshop full of academic seconds :-)


What is happening to the Libraries in the UK is just disasterous, I hate to think that other countries might follow this short sighted lead.


Most universities (private or public) in the US restrict borrowing by non-students, but visiting? The only American university library I've ever seen that's completely closed to the general public is Harvard's.



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