Once I offered a child an old book of fairy tales that my children had outgrown. She declined gracefully saying that she ‘had a book at home already’. It broke my heart: how little this child understood of the beauty of a shelf full of well thumbed books to which she could return again and again.

‘Not having books is not always about lack of money’, writes Beverley Naidoo, ‘but about what we value. Books are “mind food”. One of our most important freedoms is surely to read, imagine, think and ask questions about the world’.

The rope of words passed on from one generation to the next is of incalculable value.

A string of famous authors fear that reading is being relegated to the status of a trivial pastime. Philip Pullman, Michael Rosen and Alan Gibbons are involved in a campaign to save school libraries which they say are being eroded all over the country by cuts in staff, time and resources. Pullman warns that a school which closes its library will become a ‘byword for philistinism and ignorance’. The school is to become a virtual learning environment with fiction material maintained in a new reading centre but without a librarian. Gibbons said: ‘No amount of googling and copying and pasting can replace the intellectual flexibility developed by reading whole books’.

Public library spending on books fell by 1% in the year to March 2008; spending on audio-visual materials such as DVDs rose 4.2% over the same period. There were 38 library closures last year, up from 35 the previous year.

Research by the British Library and UCL into people’s behaviour in finding and reading information online describes ‘a new form of information finding behaviour’ characterised as being ‘horizontal, bouncing, checking and viewing in nature. Users are promiscuous, diverse and volatile’.

Horizontal information–seeking means ‘a form of skimming activity., where people view just one or two pages from an academic site then “bounce out”, perhaps never to return’. The average time users spend on e-book and e-journal sites is very short: typically 4 and 8 minutes respectively.

The study says, ‘It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense. Indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as readers “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts.

John Naughton comments: ‘The study confirms what many are beginning to suspect: that the web is having a profound effect on how we conceptualise, seek, evaluate and use information. What Marsahll McLuhan called ‘the Gutenberg galaxy’ – that universe of linear exposition, quiet contemplation, disciplined reading and study – is imploding, and we don’t know if what will replace it will be better or worse. But at least you can find the Wikipedia entry for ‘Gutenberg galaxy’ in 0.34 seconds’.

Surely there is room for both types of reading, and an urgent necessity for us to ensure that young learners have opportunities to delve so deep into a book that time is forgotten.

There was some good news about libraries today.
The Herald reports that the nation’s libraries are experiencing a welcome upsurge in usage and withdrawals – and the only reason those witnessing the turnaround in the fortunes of the civic library can provide is the financial crisis and impending recession. Hard-up readers, it seems, are borrowing books rather than buying them.

Here I am in the foyer of the British Library, a haven of civilisation 5 minutes from Kings Cross: