Feb 16

Public Libraries: A Vile Pox, Or Why Terry Deary Is Wrong

Boys reading

Look upon the cold, bitter face of evil. Look, I say! Doth it not freeze the very marrow within thy bones?

Terry Deary, you mindless twit. We are all subject to greed—it’s endemic to humanity—but it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen such a grasping, wrongheaded exhibition of it. The author of the Horrible Histories books for children has claimed, ridiculously, that public libraries are a vile pox on humanity¹, that they are killing bookstores, stealing the very food from the mouths of hardworking authors and publishers, and so on. Deary seems to be exhibiting an acute lack of critical thinking, which I find surprising, since he has authored a successful nonfiction series that surely must have required significant brain activity to assemble. Maybe he’s used up all his cells.

How is Deary incorrect and/or offensive? Oh, let me count the ways.

First, let’s address his faulty grasp of math (or maths, depending on where you are) and finances. In the UK, every time an author’s book is borrowed from a library, the author gets 6.2 pence, or about 10 cents US. There is a cap (annual, I’m guessing) of £6,600, or about $10K US.²  Since his books were borrowed from public libraries in the UK 500,000 times in 2011/12, he “capped out.” His contention is that since he gets 30 pence ($0.46 US) for every sale, if people weren’t checking out his books from the libraries but were instead buying them, he’d have gotten about £180,000 ($278K US). Epic fail, Mr. Dreary.

For someone who supposedly writes for children, he hasn’t a clue about their reading habits. As any parent who has occasionally cringed at “one more time” of Goodnight Moon or The Cat in the Hat knows, young children are repeat consumers. The age group he is aiming for is a bit older, but you can bet there are still some repeat checkouts within that 500,000, especially in his nonfiction works.

He’s also assuming that every one of those checkouts would have been converted to a sale (and conveniently forgetting that he was paid for those books when the libraries purchased them, probably at a premium). I’ve used libraries my entire life, and while the way I use them has changed in some ways, this has not: I check out lots of books I probably would not buy even if they were not available through the library. Why? Because I don’t know enough about a particular book that I want to buy it, but I do know that I’m interested enough to read it. Which is the exact same reasoning I used as a child (with the exception that now, if I want to buy it, I generally can).

The corollary to that is this: many of the books I purchase are books I previously checked out from a public library. Deary seems to think that people are either library users or book purchasers, and while statistically there must be some people who are one or the other, lots of readers are happy to get books however they can. Use of the library is often fluid over a reader’s lifetime, too. As I’ve mentioned before, as a child I didn’t own many books, but I was a frequent flier at both our school library and the public library in our little town. As a young adult working for peanuts, I still loved to read but couldn’t afford to buy very many books, and so borrowed the majority of the ones I read. And even now, although I do buy quite a few books in both physical form and on my Kindle (and my husband is a voracious consumer of audiobooks), I almost always have a few library books on my nightstand, at least one of which is probably overdue. (Sorry, MCPL. I hope the fines do some good.)

I wonder … if the library hadn’t been available when I was a child, would I be reading as much as I do now? Hmm … No. Of course not. Reading is a habit, and if we don’t start young, chances are we never will. So much of the world around us tries, often successfully, to make us into non-readers. No, libraries don’t directly sell books. But they do something that, in the long run, is so much more important. They build readers.

Finally, one last point (I could make many more, but instead I’ll link you here, where Foz Meadows smartly makes them for me). First, this quote from Mr. Deary: “Libraries … are used by an ever-diminishing amount of people.” Aaannndd then this one, from The Guardian: “Bookshops are closing down, he said, ‘because someone is giving away the product they are trying to sell … [Libraries] are putting bookshops out of business.'” Well, which is it, ye great pillock?³ Are libraries dying because no one’s using them? Or are bookshops dying because libraries are siphoning their revenue? You can’t have it both ways.

It’s so painful to think that an author of children’s books is championing the downfall of the public library. Thankfully, so many more authors are raising the hue and cry in support of libraries. Hooray for sensible writers!

¹Fine, fine. Deary didn’t really say libraries are a vile pox on humanity. But he clearly implied it. And he did say all that mind-numbingly idiotic other stuff.

²I’m not completely sure how the UK author reimbursement is structured because 1) I am not in the UK, 2) I am not a librarian although I admire them immensely, and 3) I am not paid for any of my writing although I would have no objection to such an arrangement. But for the purposes of what we’re doing here, which is stamping out a big blob of ignorance, the fine tooth comb details don’t really matter.

³I have been waiting ages to use the phrase “ye great pillock,” which I first encountered as a young adult in the book Good Omens. I wish I could thank Mr. Deary in person for the opportunity.

photo credit: slightly everything via photopin cc


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  1. Ron

    I’d never heard of Deary until your post. I have to say I’m kind of flabbergasted that an author could be so blinkered and utterly wrong about libraries. I suppose he thinks we ought to ban used bookstores as well?

    1. Evelyn Stice

      I hadn’t either, but apparently he’s Kind Of A Big Deal in the UK. Yes, I imagine he thinks all books should be burned after the first owner is done with them.

      Thankfully, so many authors support public libraries with their words and financially. The two that come immediately to mind are Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, but I know that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

  2. Meagan

    As a 5th grader, I remember going to the school librarian and asking what she would recommend for me. She took me over to Nancy Drew, “I’ve read all of these.” Surprised, she took me over to the Hardy Boys series, “I’ve read all of them.” Everywhere she turned, I’d already read until she took me to the Oz series. I read those too, of course!

    We rarely had our own books as children. The free book I earned in 5th grade was The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron.

    If I didn’t have access to libraries, I would never have been interested in purchasing any books. By the way, I’ve already read this year’s Big Read, Old School by Tobias Wolff. We should all support and utilize our local libraries. I feel the need to go to mine TODAY!

    1. Evelyn Stice

      Hear, hear! Today is a great day to go to the library. Heck, every day is a great day to go to the library.

      The Oz series was one of my favorites. That is some trippy stuff, too. 😛

  3. Kate / Slightly Everything

    What a perfect use of this image (my two little ones). When I read this to the older little one (now 10) he said “Terry Deary is an enormous twit!” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

    Kate , Jacob and Tom x

    1. Evelyn Stice

      Ah, I’m so glad you like it! I thought it was a good fit myself. Hmm, sounds like your older little one has a way with words. 🙂

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