Notes From the Margins…

The Bonfire of the Libraries

  • January 15, 2012
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Libraries are special places.  Jorge Luis Borges once imagined that Paradise would look like a ‘kind of library’.   ‘When I got my library card, that’s when my life began,    wrote the American writer Rita Mae Brown.  The tennis player Arthur Ashe once described libraries as ‘the courts of last resort’ and insisted that ‘ the current definitive answer to almost any question can be found within the four walls of most libraries’.

He wasn’t wrong.  And  even if these answers can’t be found in your local library, it can often get them for you.    I live in a small town of about 15,000, and it isn’t always possible to get books I need except by travelling or by forking out vast sums of cash, so I often have to order them.

Our library is not large, but its tentacles reach out to unexpected places.   When I was writing and researching my last three books I was constantly going down there, where the ever-helpful librarians would help me chase down obscure tomes from the British library or other UK libraries.

In some cases I ordered them not really expecting them to turn up – like the long-forgotten British Amy unarmed combat manual from World War II, which I needed for an article I was writing.  But that book was also found, quietly mouldering in some obscure warehouse and probably never expecting that anyone would ever want to look at it again.

So it wasn’t for nothing that I included a thank you to my local librarians in my last two books – they really are worth it.   But our library isn’t just my personal resource.   When my daughter was young she loved going there and rarely did so without coming out with a stack of books.   Often when I go there I will hear someone reading a book aloud to a group of children in the childrens’ section, and some young reader will  emerge with a great pile of books and the same earnest, hungry expression that my daughter once had at the same age.

Then there will also be someone using the Internet because they don’t have it at home or their computer has broken down.   A teenager might  be looking at reference books for information on universities or careers.  Someone  will be taking out new novels, which are on display to attract them,  or maybe something older.

Others will be reading Mills & Boon, military history, philosophy, poetry, thrillers or Terry Pratchett.  Or they might be there to borrow a waterproof map or a CD, or to check out the noticeboard.   In short, this small library is a kind of hub, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that it provides something of a heart and soul to the community it serves.

Many libraries have a similar purpose.  Because contrary to what is often believed, books are not cheap – and not everyone can buy them all the time, especially in periods of ‘austerity.’   Nor does everyone use the Internet, and even those that do not necessarily want to read books on it or get a kindle.

None of this is of any interest to the wise, enlightened rulers who now govern us, of course.  Last January the Coalition announced that a third of all Britain’s libraries would close.  Since then the stripping process has continued apace.   In Doncaster, 14 out of 26 libraries have been closed or handed to volunteer groups.  Since March last year, the Chartered Institute of Library Information Professionals (CILIP) estimates that 600 English public libraries are at risk of closure out of 4,500 – in addition to the 6,000 jobs connected with them.

Some of these closed libraries have been taken over by volunteers, but as the print edition of Private Eye points out, such initiatives tend to occur in posh parts of the country where people have time on their hands and can’t be considered an adequate substitute for a properly-funded service.

Because contrary to predictions that public libraries are doomed by the ‘death of the book’, by Amazon, the Internent, kindles and and tablets etc, millions of  people still use them.  As  CILIP points out:

Currently English public libraries are visited by over three quarters of a million people a day and cost each person (through national and local taxation) just under 40p per week. They are about the “good” things of life delivering tangible outcomes in economic regeneration, learning, literacy and health as well as providing opportunities for personal enrichment and fulfilment. In a time of recession libraries are needed even more with information for jobseekers, support for the development of new skills and knowledge, and a “free” public space encouraging community cohesion and a wide range of activities: they are beacons of hope for a better future.

New Labour also argued that libraries were in crisis – and like the Coalition – their main interest in doing so was to justify privatisations and closures.   But as we have seen in so many other areas, the current crisis has provided undreamt-of opportunities for stripping down the public budget of pretty much everything considered non-essential – and libraries are clearly a redundant resource in Tory/LibDem land.

We mustn’t let them get away with it.  Because public libraries are not just a marker of a civilised society: they are also an essential hallmark of a democratic society. They enable men, women and children of all ages and backgrounds to participate in the ‘republic of letters’ and share in the pleasure of the text for whatever reasons they may have, and to use and access books throughout their lives.

Clearly such a society is not a priority to the Camerons and Osbornes of this world.  It was,  after all, a Conservative MP who opposed the 1850 Public Libraries Act on the grounds that ‘people have too much knowledge already: it was much easier to manage them 20 years ago; the more education people get the more difficult they are to manage.’

They are indeed.   And that is one more reason to support the campaign to keep libraries open.    Julius Caesar once destroyed the library of Alexandria by setting it on fire; the Coalition are proposing to visit similar destruction on British public libraries by decree.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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