One of the myths put about by defenders of library closures, for example by Mark Littlewood of the Institute of Economic Affairs on Newsnight earlier in the week, is that books are abundant and cheap; Littlewood, if I heard him correctly, offered eBay as an alternative to the public library. Leaving aside the fact that public libraries offer more than books, there are some flaws in this argument.
I read the weekend edition of the Financial Times regularly but slowly, so it was not until yesterday evening that I came upon an article about the Highgrove Florilegium, a two-volume work of botanical illustration commissioned by the Prince of Wales, and on sale for £12,950. Copies are, I think, unlikely to find their way onto eBay, though there are about 35 of the print run available from Addison Publications, if you happen to have thirteen thousand pounds in loose change.
Thank heavens for legal deposit, therefore. Were it not for the fact that both the British Library and the National Library of Scotland have copies, according to COPAC, I imagine acquired under the legal deposit system, no student of modern botanical illustration, horticulturalist or interested reader would be able to consult this work. One hopes that the other four legal deposit libraries, the Bodleian, Cambridge University Library, the National Library of Wales and Trinity College Dublin, will claim their copies quickly before the rest of the print run goes.
An extreme case perhaps? Yes, but anyone with a merely average level of intellectual curiosity cannot possibly afford to buy all the books they need. I own many books: I have catalogued 1,052 of them on Librarything and I probably own twice as many more, my own personal cataloguing backlog. Yet I still use public and other libraries intensively. Even when I have work, and an income, I could not possibly afford to buy all the books I read. Fair enough, say the Littlewoods of this world, but why do you need them to be available at public expense? In an interesting choice of words he said that public libraries were prime pieces of high-street real estate, implying that they would be much more useful as estate agents' offices than public libraries.
At a philosophical level, my answer is that, for humans, knowledge is meant to be shared; but I sensed that Littlewood would not be swayed by that argument. Perhaps he would be moved by understanding the difference between knowledge held in a private collection and that made freely available is that the latter can be used by many for the general good.