The closure of so many libraries and the slashing of budgets is certainly a bleak prospect, but I am inclined to be optimistic. Alongside the death of the library (a worldwide phenomenon) there are grounds for hope.
In an entertaining recent article about libraries, Bella Bathurst writes: "The libraries' most powerful asset is the conversation they provide – between books and readers, between children and parents, between individuals and the collective world. Take them away and those voices turn inward or vanish ... libraries have nothing to do with silence."
That's not a conventional defence of libraries, but perfectly sensible. Libraries fulfil a complex function. As Umberto Eco writes in his just-published This Is Not the End of the Book, "a library is not necessarily made up of books that we've read, or even that we will eventually read. They should be the books that we can read. Or that we may read. Even if we never do."
That's the library less as an ongoing discussion and more as a potential resource. Whatever you expect from a library, a lively literary culture depends on a vigorous literary conversation. This can come from many sources. During the last decade there has been an explosion of a phenomenon which, while in no way matching the depth and complexity of libraries, has certainly generated a lot of debate. I refer to book clubs, or reading groups.
First popularised in the 1990s, they are now ubiquitous. Publishers promote them. Local councils encourage, and numerous websites advertise, book clubs across the UK (and the world). They come in all shapes and sizes. Last week, I was sent a press release from Ireland launching "The Flying Book Club", an offshoot of the city's successful application to be a Unesco City of Literature.
Certainly, such book clubs are a mixed bag. They do achieve one thing that libraries used to do: they stimulate reading. Don't get me wrong: book clubs are neither a sufficient nor a necessary replacement for libraries. But still, combined with the social network, literary festivals and the resurgence of independent bookshops, they make up a picture that is not, perhaps, quite as dire as it is sometimes made out to be.
Meanwhile, all of us in the world of books should continue to campaign against the cuts. Someone estimated that the RAF flypast at the royal wedding cost approximately £400,000 for less than a minute's entertainment. £400,000 would have financed many hundreds of books on library shelves.