Sunday, 6 February 2011

National Libraries Action Day

Yesterday was National Libraries Action Day, intended to draw attention to the likely closure of 450 public libraries, following government cuts in local authority funding (in England -- Scotland and Wales take a more enlightened view of these things). Phillip Pullman, who has somehow become the go-to guy when the discussion turns to libraries, spoke up for Oxfordshire libraries (20 of their 43 public libraries face closure), saying:
Leave the libraries alone, they are too precious to destroy. I love the public library service for what it did for me as a child and as a student and as an adult. I love it because its presence in a town or a city reminds us that there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about, things that have the power to baffle the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism, things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight.
Rousing words, with which I totally agree, as far as they go, and which go a long way to explaining my choice of career, when I'm in a positive mood. Now is not the time to go into the way I think about it when I'm not. So, I went on down to the Central Library yesterday afternoon, looking forward to a display of solidarity with my hard-pressed colleagues in the public library sector.

There actually wasn't a lot going on (our libraries aren't imminently threatened with closure), but I had a nice catch-up chat with Alison, who used to work for me and now runs children's library services down there. It made me reflect that my peak use of the public library service in recent times was fetching back weekly armfuls of books for the kids. Before then, in the years BC,* I would drop by most Saturdays, ritually returning and borrowing CDs. Since then, not so much.

Once, of course, as for any bright kid from a book-free home, the local library had been a beacon, a well-stocked embassy from another country where I longed to travel and whose language I was keen to learn. This was the 1960s, of course, when spending public money on libraries was still considered a Good Thing. I felt at home there in a way I never did at school, or in other public facilities like swimming pools and youth clubs. Later, it was a good place to do homework and meet like-minded girls on dark winter evenings. I don't know whether libraries still play this role in anyone's life; somehow I doubt it.

Even if funding and support could be restored to 1960s levels, though, the challenge for public libraries, of course, is the internet. In my previous post I referred to the passing around of sonnets as a sort of blogging, and I read Michael Moorcock in Saturday's Guardian referring to the way fanzines used to put you in touch with like-minded people as "a very slow working internet". In many ways, the internet is a global library -- it has taken the functions and ideas behind a public library, but added intergalactic hyperdrive. Faced with a gap in my knowledge, my first port of call is Wikipedia, these days, never the local reference library. Wanting to read a book or listen to music, I'm going to see if I can download it or buy it online, before I even think of looking it up in the online catalogue of the public library.

Of course, these days I'm very much an information "have" in a country where "have nots" are becoming a minority and are at an increasing disadvantage. To be able to take broadband access to the internet for granted (not to mention disposable income and leisure time) is an immense privilege that, according to Ofcom's figures, has made information aristocrats of 58% of the population of the UK. Libraries have an important role to play here, closing that gap, provided they can deliver the necessary infrastructure and opening hours.

But notice how Phillip Pullman refers to the library's symbolic value in the quote above, not its actual value -- it "reminds" and it "stands for", like some sort of church. I doubt Mr. Pullman is a big borrower or user of the free internet services at his local library. That's OK, neither am I. But defence of the library service will have to be based on more than high-minded sentiment, if it is to compete with repairs to the roads and care for the elderly in a shrinking council budget. I am afraid to say I have yet to hear anyone voice the compelling arguments for libraries that are based on what libraries are today, and could be tomorrow, rather than on what they have been in the past. But maybe that's the problem with relying on celebrity advocacy to attract attention to an issue...

* Before Children


Martyn Cornell said...

I'm going to act as devilled avocado here: with the spread of Kindle-like devices, physical libraries are going to become increasingly unnecessary. Give every child a (sponsored) e-reader, and a subscription to an e-library. Let it browse through books on the e-reader, and have books recommended to it based on its age and interests and books it has read and rated before. Downloaded books have a life of (say) two weeks before they are wiped. The librarian is dead - long live the virtual e-librarian.

(I may have a deep psychological grudge against librarians, I fear: I still rage, nearly 50 years on, at the woman in Stevenage Library who spotted me, as a 10-year-old, in the "young teens" section of the children's library, from where I had happily been taking books for many months. She demanded to know my age, told me the books I was looking at were too old for me, and firmly took me over to the selection for eight-to-10s. Which, of course, I had long grown out of. Stupid bitch.)

Mike C. said...


I wouldn't disagree with you -- it's clear the future of reading is electronic. However, it's the past we have to be more concerned about, I think.

The role of the library /archive as a depository of unique local material is one generally hidden behind that popular public face of "borrowing books" (and that woman who scarred you for life was most likely a library assistant, not a librarian -- and these days, she'd be an unpaid volunteer). Once the service is abolished, the important invisible functions go, too.

Same with galleries, museums, local newspapers, etc. The "value for money" analysis is always very shallow, and never takes account of the things that have no price tag.