They get some shame-faced buffoon on to defend the indefensible, specifically defending the closing of public libraries. There is no way to defend such a policy.
I’ve had a library card since I was old enough to be given one. I now have six library cards from different libraries. Zadie Smith is exactly right: it is a portal into literature, into learning, into education, into university. It is as true for the well off as it is for the poor: the library is the gateway in. My local library is not a great or learned institution. But the important role it plays is to give everyone who wants it the right to go and read and think and learn. Rich, poor, young, old, all can go in and read fiction, history, philosophy, science, art, poetry and much less prosaic stuff: cookbooks, gardening books, computer manuals, newspapers.
I’m the first generation in my family to go to university and get a degree, and without my local public library, I don’t think I would have gone to university, nor would I have gone on and done a Master’s.
The gentleman they got on to defend the closing of public libraries defended it on the basis that young people get their information from the web. This is true. Where do they get it from? A lot of it comes from public institutions, the public realm: from public broadcasters like the BBC through to publications made by universities. Even Wikipedia sort of falls into that category: though maintained by unpaid volunteers and charity, the knowledge that goes into making Wikipedia is an off-shoot of public education, public libraries and so on. In the grand continuum between public library and Rupert Murdoch, Wikipedia is much closer to the public library. And a good thing too.
When my local library lends me a book, they are helping me and often helping to build up Wikipedia too. If you get rid of the publicly-funded, the academically-funded and the often-publicly-assisted services from the Internet, what have you got left? Lots of newspapers with paywalls, lots of personal blogs with wild speculation and incendiary rhetoric, and lots of celebrities mumbling on Twitter. Great if you want to find out about Lady Gaga. Not so great if you want to find out about the Peloponnesian War.
Of course, if the government were to drastically cut back on the outrageously long copyright terms, we could actually put a lot more works online as free public domain documents on sites like Project Gutenberg and Wikisource. (I’ve got a book sitting on my desk that was published in 1963 that sold for five shillings and I legally cannot let you read a scanned copy of it. The author has been dead since 1983. It won’t go into the public domain in Britain until 2053. This is completely ridiculous.)
If you want an informed society, and a society willing to educate themselves and others, cutting funding for public libraries is a bloody good way to prevent that from happening. This government are a bunch of barbarians. It wasn’t libraries that caused the financial crisis: it was bankers, cut them instead.