A vision for libraries

There has been a great deal of ire and righteous wrath expressed recently in the letters pages and comment columns of national newspapers, on what is seen as the desperate state of our libraries. Is all this criticism justified? Or might some of it at least have more to do with literary elitists’ concern over what they see as the creeping philistinism of public life? Fiona Harrington reports

The novelist Susan Hill quoted in the Evening Standard of 3rd January, poured scorn on minister Ed Balls for pledging to make 2008 "the year of reading" while at the same time presiding over the closure of up to 40 libraries nationwide, while swingeing cuts mean that many others are having to shorten their opening hours and lay off staff.

In her words, many libraries are being reduced merely to places to "have coffee, take language classes and do that funny Tai Chi arm-waving stuff… if Ed Balls had got any, he will not only tell parents to read to their children, he will help restore the libraries”.

Leaving aside Ms Hill's notion that libraries could possibly have any role other than be places where no activity apart from reading and book-based research or study can take place, and her apparent contempt for both language learning and Tai Chi, is there any real basis for the much publicised concern over the decimation of the nation's public libraries?  

Reports of closures and downgrading of public libraries up and down the country certainly make for depressing reading. For example, culture minister Margaret Hodge admitted in a Commons written answer last August that while 31 libraries had opened in 2006/07 another 71 had closed, making for a net loss of 40 libraries. In Kent, 77 library staff have received redundancy letters while in London the historic and iconic Whitechapel library, once dubbed the "University of the Ghetto" by local people in the early part of the last century, closed its doors for good in 2005 - to be replaced by an “Ideas Store” near a Sainsbury's. Reportedly, books in this new location are in very short supply compared to DVDs and computers.

Hermione Eyre writing in the Independent of 4th January reported the "disappearance" of 239,344 books from the stock of Waltham Forest libraries. Where did they end up? In the nearby Edmonton incinerator and recycling plant. Local people were outraged at the "cull" of so many books and are planning to stage a demonstration.

This display of anger, combined with the many other expressions of dismay and protests against library closures up and down the country, demonstrates the affection and esteem in which the public library system is held. As with hospitals it appears that we may well end up with fewer but bigger and brighter libraries, containing less in the way of actual literature, with entertainment being their main purpose.

It is obvious that people need and want libraries. Libraries provide at their best, everything from basic information and the means towards self-education, to nourishment for the imagination. They can be places of refuge, even for an hour or two, for people needing some peace and quiet. Locations of shelter and company, they can offer a few undisturbed hours to study, read newspapers and surf the web.

They are especially valuable to those who do not have the means to otherwise engage in these activities, who cannot afford to buy books, don't have computers, or who lack a quiet atmosphere in which to read or study. They are places in which to sleep and dream, literally! Regular library users feel a sense of proprietorship towards "their" library and rightly so, it is their taxes after all which fund, or are supposed to fund, local services including libraries.

Relationships, in the professional sense, built up over time between staff and borrowers, foster not only more committed service on the part of library workers which in turn assists the provision of superior stock and facilities, but can even directly and indirectly aid community cohesiveness.

Ongoing cuts in local authority spending therefore are all the more reprehensible in a society suffering ever greater inequality and resultant alienation. The less well off are those who need facilities such as libraries most but who are most likely to receive the shoddiest of services. Libraries can literally be lifelines out of poverty of the spirit at least and sometimes out of literal poverty too. Take the case of someone who lands a job because of being able to work towards a qualification with help from library resources, or being in the position to apply for a post online, or being able get assistance from a staff member with filling in a job application or other some other official form.

Does it matter then that some of these places are called “ideas stores” cringe-worthy though that sounds? Or that in the 21st century some of our older library buildings get a modern makeover, are rebuilt, or acquire ever more modern technology as well as books? I actually don't think it does matter too much or that all the huffing and puffing we read in the papers over the "desecration of the nation's libraries" as it has been described is totally justified.

Author and writer Will Self who campaigned vigorously against cuts in his local library in Lambeth, maintains that DVD rentals and internet access is a diversion from their main purpose of book provision. He is reported as saying that “libraries are the bedrock of literate culture. It's bad the way libraries are forced to compete with Waterstones and Borders with cafes and DVD rentals. The Internet has become a stick to beat library loans with".
Professor Bob Usherwood, past president of the Library Association has recently written that "many, but not all, responsible for the service no longer have confidence in its core values and are confused about how to defend them”. Confusion about what libraries are and what they ought to provide is the nub of the issue.

Self's comments betray a supposition that most of us have a Waterstones or a Borders nearby, not to mention a bewildering array of cafes to choose from. In fact, it is the case that many people either never visit bookshops, considering them perhaps as not really being for them, or simply do not have the money to spend on the "luxury" of books, or do not have any kind of a bookshop in their locality.

In those instances there is no question of competition, so the  extension of library facilities from books to the provision of DVDs, CDs and Internet access as well, which you do not have to buy or pay for, is a very welcome and appreciated development. What really matters is that those places exist, that they are generously funded, well stocked with everything from classic literature to the lightest fiction, carry a wide range of electronic resources, newspapers and magazines, everything from the recreational to the inspirational, with committed and highly-trained staff on hand to assist. New library buildings need to be designed with all this in mind and the best of them already are. There is a need for quiet and a need for places to talk and even be noisy, children's spaces and adults areas and so on.

Perhaps libraries could take inspiration from the autonomous social centre scene and branch out in looser, more anarchic and people-centred directions. Users could, for instance, bring in their own material for exchange with each other. This could become just as valid a method of library use as borrowing from the library's own stock, broadening and complementing it at the same time. Some libraries already host book clubs and discussion groups. So a widening of the public library remit in these and many other ways could give a new lease of life to many run-down and ready for the chop local branches and also halt the undoubted dumbing down of libraries that remain open.

They could again become not only welcoming but challenging places, giving people a chance to entertain and educate themselves and one another, in both the old and the newer ways. The disapproving sighs of some, that libraries and reading and hence all the values we hold dear are rapidly going down the plug-hole of our contemporary populist culture, are somewhat but not entirely justified. The really worrying thing is the amount of cutbacks in library provision and this is what needs to be addressed first. Then let us decide for ourselves in our own localities, whether in towns, cities or countryside, what we want our libraries to contain and what we want them to be for.

The self-appointed guardians of culture want to preserve, understandably enough, their cultural perspectives and standards. But what we could surely have and are entitled to, is the enrichment of all our lives by both preserving what we understand culture to be and extending the boundaries as well. We are in the Information Age we are told and we know that knowledge can give us power. We must ensure those storehouses of information remain available to us. We must continue to protest vigorously at the slightest hint that a valued library might be shut down and demand more generally of libraries.

A further stage could be to take over and work them ourselves on a voluntary basis to prevent losses. In a more truly democratic society of course the allied but separate problems of library neglect and cutbacks and the lowering of standards in those that remain would not vex us as they do now. But in the meantime bring on the Internet, provide the DVDs, the CDs the coffee, the sofas, the Tai-Chi and language classes - oh and books too, lots of them!

9 January 2008

Bookmark and Share