Neil Gaiman has written a formidable plea for public libraries. Here you can find the text of a lecture that he delivered in London on October 14, subsequently published on The Guardian.
His arguments are instinctively appealing to all of us "bookies". I particularly liked the following one:
The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.
I often sense that "creativity" is a word which is undergoing an inflation process. Nowadays it is fashionable word, but I feel it is getting more and more vague. Paradoxically, Gaiman makes it more concrete by talking of day-dreaming. Not that you can't dream about basically everything, but "day-dreaming" is a recognizable attitude, it entails both a sense of lack of satisfaction with the present and the ability (sometimes, the courage) to look beyond the boundaries of what appears immediately feasible. In this sense, I find the correlation between reading and day-dreaming, and thus creativity, an interesting point.
Gaiman quotes--approvingly--J.R.R. Tolkien on "escapist" literature: "I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories", wrote the author of The Lord of the Rings, "and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which 'Escape' is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?".
Later on, Gaiman speaks of "obligations", broadly understood, for both the present generations and writers in particular, as far as future generations are concerned. He does make a powerful case for libraries, arguing that "if you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future".
And yet, libraries nowadays seem out of fashion, though Books may be like sharks: "Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is". And yet libraries look like dinosaurs.
In the city where I live, Milan, public libraries seem to be far too many, if measured against popular demand. Constraints on public spending make, in perspective, their survival more difficult. Furthermore, it is hard to imagine the sort of investment that you would need to make libraries an attractive and lively space not just for books but also for real human beings. The massive process of digitization undertaken by Google suggests they may become thoroughly obsolete. Libraries, Gaiman argues, fit with our concept of what an "educated society" should be. But, at the end of the day, libraries like anything else in this world can hardly survive, if people do not find them useful any longer.
Suppose we agree with Gaiman, that the library as a social space needs to be preserved. What shall we do, then? His response is that "we need to support libraries", which I suppose translates in people need to be taxed by their municipalities in order to pay for them. Is this approach going to succeed in the long run? Perhaps we can picture a different scenario. One in which libraries that are supported by specific institutions continue to survive (like university libraries), but public libraries may be put in a way "on the market": which means, they should find supporting associations, individuals, or businesses that agree to steward their future. The publishing market is undergoing a serious transformation, by and large because of new technologies. Publishers are struggling to evolve their business models, as the traditional ones are no longer economically feasible. We do not know where we are going, but clearly there never were rosier times for the hope of a "democratization" of knowledge. Should libraries be preserved from this creative destruction, don't they risk to miss the creative side, together with the destructive one?
Perhaps we need a bit more "day dreaming" for libraries too.