Public libraries offer vital cultural and leisure roles for the communities they serve. The provision of books, periodicals, music, films, documentaries and other resources opens up new worlds of culture and leisure to library members who are able to gain access to materials they may not necessarily otherwise be able to afford.
However, as discussed in previous chapters, it could be argued that public libraries in the UK were formed on the back of suspicions about the leisure pursuits of working class people; as Hayes and Morris have suggested, a ‘strong argument for the establishment of public libraries related to the reform of leisure, recognizing them as a means of providing better recreational opportunities for working class people’ (Hayes and Morris, 2005, 76). As will be seen in the discussion below, despite the genuinely positive notion of providing equity of access discussed in Chapter 3, public libraries can face criticism regarding the types of material they deliver to the public they serve.
This chapter will focus on the services provided by the public library that can be defined as supporting the cultural and leisure needs of the communities it serves, and consider some of the larger philosophical questions related to that provision.
Culture or leisure?
First, it is important to consider the philosophical context of libraries providing access to books. A fundamental debate about the existence of public libraries centres around the tension some commentators see between the public library supporting leisure reading and interests, versus its role to support the cultural needs of the community. In reality both are supported, but the pressure for libraries to be seen to be supporting usage that is worthy and educational rather than recreational has been with us since the formation of public libraries.
Lending of books – which kind?
This debate, dubbed the Great Fiction Question, relates to whether it is desirable for public funds to pay for people to read for leisure, or whether we should have more lofty ideals for our publicly funded libraries. The debate is constantly revisited both within the profession and without in wider society; one only has to recall the wish of the Select Committee cited in Chapter 2: ‘Shall we therefore abandon the people to the influence of a low, enfeebling, and often pestilential literature, instead of enabling them to breathe a more elevated, and more congenial atmosphere?’ (House of Commons, 1849, vii).