In today's Times journalist Helen Rumbelow argues for the replacement of public libraries with millions of 'personal' ones. The fact is, she says, that books are a lot cheaper to buy than in the past and with the Internet information is far more easily accessible with a few mouse clicks than a trip to your local library. Her article (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,1072-2421353,00.html) also points out that book-borrowing has declined by 40% in the past decade.
I love books and I love libraries. As a child I would spend hours after school reading in them. When I worked as a volunteer teacher in Eastern Europe I frequently visited the neighbourhood's library as a place where I knew I could sit and read and think in peace and quiet and for free. My mother visits her local library most days to catch up on the day's news and to browse community event notices among other things.
The fact is that a lot of people can't afford to buy books and build up their own 'personal library'. The internet is a remarkable innovation, but it's not without its flaws: it can be difficult to navigate, is filled with a lot of junk information that isn't peer-reviewed or fact-checked in any way, and it costs money. There's still a fairly large percentage of the UK population who don't have a computer or internet access at home.
Then there's the fact that bookshops are subject to commercial pressures that public libraries aren't - bookshops stock what titles they think they can sell and ignore the rest. Mass-market fiction and self-help manuals take precedence over most kinds of reference books, classic literature or poetry for example. Public libraries on the other hand can stock the widest range of books: browsing the average library shelf can be a fascinating experience.
Perhaps most importantly of all, public libraries in every high street - rich and poor, modern or not, urban and rural - remind us of the fact that learning is for everyone and that it is as much a community activity and interest as it is a personal one. A mind is best used when it is linked up with many others.