This morning the Telegraph published a story quoting a claim by Terry Deary that it would be a “hell of a lot cheaper” to give “the poor” Kindles rather than fund public libraries. This isn’t the first time Mr Deary has launched an attack on public libraries, back in February he caused outrage with his comments about libraries and the ‘damage’ they do to the book industry. So, how does Deary’s suggestion hold up under scrutiny? Well, not very well.
Let’s start off with the number of people who would benefit from Deary’s plan. One group of people that would be hardest hit by library closures would be the group of people who do not currently have internet access. The closest we have to determining how many people fit into this category are the quarterly figures published by the Office for National Statistics. According to their latest release, 7 million adults have never used the internet. That’s never used. The figure for those who do not have access will, obviously, be much higher. So, it’s fair to use that 7 million figure as a starting point.
Then we need to consider costs. How much will each part of Deary’s plan cost if we were to go ahead with it. First of all, we need Kindles. A bog standard Kindle from the Amazon website costs £69. But Kindles need a wifi connection to enable people to download books (exclusively from Amazon by the way, which would make this a money-spinner for them if we total up all the costs). Costs for a broadband connection vary of course, but £20 per month seems to be a fair figure. So, over the course of a year, broadband access would amount to around £240 (or thereabouts). And if Kindles are being gifted by the state, the broadband access fee would need to be paid for on an ongoing basis until those in receipt of it will be in a position to pay for it themselves (we could get into the bureaucratic costs this would incur, but let’s keep it simple).
We could also factor in the cost of the books plus the cost of a replacement Kindle every couple of years (not to mention that families might need more than one – one for the children and one for the adults), which would obviously significantly increase the costs, but let’s stick with one Kindle per adult to cut Deary some slack and make it as cheap as possible.
Pulling all these figures together then, the cost of Deary’s plan is as follows:
7,000,000 (people who have never used the internet) x £69 (cost of the Kindle) = £483m as a one off cost.
7,000,000 x £240 (cost of broadband connection per annum) = £1,680,000,000 per annum.
In year one of Deary’s plan then, the cost to the taxpayer would be £2.2bn (adding together the two figures above) followed by an annual cost of £1.7bn (broadband connection fees for 7m people). This is just the cost at a very basic level, stripping out all the other costs that might be associated with such a scheme (training, bureaucracy etc etc). So how does this stack up with the cost of public libraries?
According to the latest statistics, public libraries cost approximately £963,284,000 per annum or £0.96bn (that’s net expenditure – total expenditure is £1,049,922,000 or £1.05bn). When we compare that with the costs of the Deary’s plan, the cost of libraries is substantially cheaper. In fact, funding public libraries is £716,716,000 per annum cheaper than the annual cost of providing broadband (£1,680,000,000).
Would it be “a hell of a lot” cheaper to give everyone who needs it a Kindle and close down all public libraries? Clearly not. Perhaps this is a case of Mr Deary once more engaging in a bit of mischief making to get his name in the newspapers. We wouldn’t like to say. However, it is clear that replacing public libraries with Kindles would not only cost significantly more, it would do substantial damage to our society. As well as borrowing books, many people, thanks to this government’s reforms, rely on their public library to provide free internet access and enable them to search for jobs (via Universal Jobmatch). You cannot search and apply for jobs on Universal Jobmatch using a Kindle and with no public libraries to rely on.
Terry Deary may argue that he is not suggesting all libraries should close and that we should keep some open. If that were the case, the cost of his plan would run into several billion pounds (if the two were run in parallel). The fact of the matter is that, despite his claims, it would not be cheaper to provide free e-readers. Perhaps given that his plan costs significantly more than that required to fund public libraries, he might like to argue that public libraries should receive more funding so they can embrace the ‘electronic age’ to the extent that he appears to desire. We won’t hold our breaths.