|Children's favourite author Julia Donaldson|
Children's laureate Julia Donaldson has come out in staunch support of libraries, dismissing Horrible Histories author Terry Deary's belief that they have "had their day" as "seriously flawed".
Earlier this week, Deary told the Guardian that in an age of compulsory schooling, libraries were "no longer relevant". But Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson – the third most-borrowed author from the UK's libraries last year – said Deary's belief that bookshops are closing "because someone is giving away the product they are trying to sell" is mistaken.
"I think it's brilliant that libraries are free. Not only do library users also buy books, but if some users genuinely are too poor to buy books, then it's great that we've got libraries for those people … [And] If libraries have any bearing on bookshops, it's the other way – libraries are creating readers," said Donaldson, who has "never met" a bookseller who believes libraries are putting them out of business.
"When I did my recent library tour from John O'Groats to Lands End, I interspersed the library visits with signings in local bookshops, and the booksellers all blamed Amazon, and to some extent ebooks, for their decline," she said. "If yet more bookshops close and people can only find books online, without public libraries there would be no place for children to physically browse and discover their tastes in reading. And publishers would only be able to publish the most popular titles, so that far more authors would be out of a living."
According to Donaldson, there is not an "either/or" between bookshops and libraries. "In reality, libraries are the places where our readers and book-buyers are created. Without the huge choice of books which libraries provide, children are not going to discover their favourite authors, and will not then be asking for books for their birthdays or buying them when they are adults with their own money," she said. "One of my sons found Horrible Histories in the library, and I used to buy them for his birthday. I would never have found them without the library, so I think library borrowing definitely contributes to sales.
Donaldson pointed to recent statistics which show that children's fiction has seen an increase in borrowing numbers for the last two years, saying that "the toddlers who go to the 'Rhymetime' sessions in libraries and the schoolchildren who do the Summer Reading Challenge are much more likely to become readers and future book- buyers than those who don't".
On Deary's comment that libraries are not needed because schools provide access to literature, Donaldson said she had "never visited a primary school which could provide a fraction of the books or specialist knowledge and advice which a library can provide". Deary agreed with her, saying that "all I am asking is 'are there other ways of addressing the problem?' Ways that do not involve a library building perhaps? Let's start with a blank sheet of paper here, not with a 100-year-old building."
Donaldson did agree with Deary that "writers need to make a living", and admitted that it "annoys me when we are often expected to do events for free", but said she had "never met any other author who feels that libraries are robbing them of their income. Like him I am one of the country's most-borrowed authors … but I think it is partly for this reason that we are also among the bestselling ones".
Deary has received an avalanche of hate mail this week, and has been subjected to what he has described as a "witch-hunt", as well as a petition – since taken down – for his bestselling Horrible Histories books to be removed from library shelves. "Some enlightened people have welcomed the debate," he said. "Many disagree but concede my right to freedom of speech. Many simply post obscenities to me that would make a grown man blush."
But according to Deary, "the most astonishing thing" was that "the campaign of vilification" against him has been led by authors. "Why is their language so intemperate, crude, personal and at the level of the playground? What are they doing for their reputations by their petty spite? And what exactly are they afraid of? And why didn't these same saintly authors march in protest against the closure of Borders bookshops as they did against the closure of libraries?" he asked.
Many authors have not been as measured as the children's laureate in their response to Deary's salvo. Neil Gaiman called Deary's views "selfish & stupid, shortsighted & sad" but "mostly selfish" on Twitter, adding: "Terry Deary gets avaricious & anti-library".
David Almond dismissed Deary's remarks as "self-serving ignorant cynical twaddle" on Twitter, and Joanne Harris wrote: "another middle-class author with plenty of money to buy books ignores the value of libraries to the old, the young & the less well off … Terry Deary's solo attempt to prove that all best-selling authors are venal, ungrateful & out-of-touch".
Speaking to the Guardian, the Chocolat author added: "It seems sad he thinks that. It also seems slightly insulting to his readership. The value of libraries to people is greater than just access to books – it is one of the benchmarks of civilisation. Free libraries were introduced for a reason – to give people who might not have access to books the chance other people had. They are the complete leveller."
Like Donaldson, Harris believes readers are not making a choice between borrowing a book from a library or buying it. "The assumption that everyone who borrows one of his [Deary's] books would otherwise be buying it from a shop is just naive," she said. "Books are borrowed from libraries, and often if people love them, they will buy them later. Libraries offer a legitimate way of trying an author, and maybe taking a punt on buying them later. Terry has left out of the equation the poor, the elderly and the vulnerable, and just people who don't have the space or money to buy thousands of books."
But "if that is what Terry genuinely thinks, then he should say it," said Donaldson. "Who knows – maybe one of us can get him to change his mind."
Deary was open to the possibility. "On a personal note I've not been to my local library for six months now. I prefer browsing and buying for my Kindle because I have a couple of million titles to choose from delivered in seconds. I feel terrible and disloyal but when my fabulous local librarian was pushed out of the door (budget cuts) I lost the motivation to go. Sorry," he said. "But I'm not alone. My experience exemplifies the problem libraries will face in the future. Where should an author stand on the question of library closures? I want libraries to convince me they are the future. I want them to lure me back in. Then I will support them with all my heart. Lovely places, lovely people."