Thursday, 27 January 2011

Leave our libraries alone!

One of the most depressing features about the Tory/Lib Dem government is it's kneejerk response to economic problems: attack the poor. Whether it's housing benefit, schools funding, tuition fees, transport or healthcare, they do the same thing: reduce services, and cut taxes for the corporations and the rich. 

Amongst these nastly little attacks on the national fabric is an apparently concerted effort to close down free public libraries across the country: rich people, who are mostly Tories, don't borrow books. They buy them.

Libraries are deeply subversive institutions. Within their walls are the tools for shaping a new world. From SF to philosophy to romance, the books sketch out visions of other - dystopian and utopian - possibilities. Any of you can walk in and come out with Plato, Aristotle, Thoreau, Ken MacLeod, Austen, Dickens or even Catherine bloody Cookson if that's what you want. Compared to them, bookshops and the well-stocked libraries of private schools are bastions of privilege and class warfare: knowledge is there but only if you've got the cash. What a change from the Victorian period, in which the super-rich were endowing free public libraries across the world, rather than closing them. 

We need to resist this Philistine attack. The resistance has already begun. Please, please read this transcript of the great Philip Pullman's speech in defence of libraries and a humane way of life.

It’s imported the worst excesses of market fundamentalism into the one arena that used to be safe from them, the one part of our public and social life that used to be free of the commercial pressure to win or to lose, to survive or to die, which is the very essence of the religion of the market. Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of political power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life.
 The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs.
That’s all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for. 
The ultimate source is probably the tendency in some of us, part of our psychological inheritance from our far-distant ancestors, the tendency to look for extreme solutions, absolute truths, abstract answers. All fanatics and fundamentalists share this tendency, which is so alien and unpleasing to the rest of us. The theory says they must do such-and-such, so they do it, never mind the human consequences, never mind the social cost, never mind the terrible damage to the fabric of everything decent and humane.
My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that?
The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?
 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. 


Ewarwoowar said...

This is a tricky one for me, personally.

On one hand I totally agree with what you and Pullman are saying, and libraries are great. I originate from a town where the library is the biggest building in the town centre, and I was always in there as a kid taking out books.

But that's the problem for me though - when I was a kid. As a "grown up", when did I last use a library? We're looking at about 12 years.

I live libraries and I want them to be saved for others, but I would find myself a bit hypocritical jumping up and down with placards for something I don't use.

Ewarwoowar said...

love* not live.

The Plashing Vole said...

But you may use them again, or your kids if you have any, and you probably understand the importance of these things to other users, who need your support. I don't 'use' social services, but I know we need them. Nor do I use local buses, parks and other amenities. But I might, and I care about the people who do need them. That's the definition of a decent community: looking out for others.

ed said...

Not the biggest Pullman fan, but after this I'd gladly wash his feet (not that he'd dig the symbolism very much).

And it's always good to think of myself as part of a 'subversive institution', despite being chubby, middle-class and weak, oh so weak.

They can only push us nerds so far...

Ewarwoowar said...

You are right, Voley. Earlier on I pondered what I said, which is why I'm now typing this comment on my phone in my local library.

It's depressing. Shelves are bare, you can tell from the design it's been like this since the 70s and out of the handful of people in here, I'm the youngest by about 40 years.

There are no baseball books either. Grim.

neal said...

My Mom enroled me at Bloxwich Library when I was 2, and took me back every week so I could choose new books I wanted to read. I hadn’t really thought about this for a long time, but I think it was really important for me as a courious kid to have access to this information, and work out what I was interested in learning.

I don’t know how many kids do this nowadays, I use Birmingham Central Library quite often to do some work, but don’t see that many young children there. I guess you can argue that many have the internet in their homes as a source of information, but I really don’t think it’s the same as looking around bookshelves as there are lots of other distractions on the internet and it’s not as pleasant as reading a book.

Politicians talk all the time about social mobility and aspiration but closing libraries seems just about the worst thing you can do to if you want to bring about a more equal society.

Blossom said...

I've been having a bit of a think about this one.I agree that libraries, like public parklands, are important because they demonstrate that quality leisure time should be available to all and should not be dependent on wealth or status but I think libraries represent more.

A BBC news report from May 2000 states that over 7 million adults in the UK are illiterate; that’s one in five of the population. There is a correlation in our schools between illiteracy and children from households near or below the poverty threshold. I appreciate that these children might not get taken to their local library but at least at the moment they have that choice. The closure of libraries must surely have a further impact on literacy levels.

My local library used to run a parent and toddler reading group, a couple of times a week. A librarian would read and lead activities for parents and their little people to foster an early love of books. For some, reading to their children does not come naturally. Many lack the confidence to read animatedly and make it fun. These groups tried to encourage parental involvement with reading. It also gave otherwise isolated parents the opportunity to make friends.
Hopefully my library still offers this fantastic service.

Libraries also offer the opportunity to try new genres of books without any financial outlay, broadening the reader’s horizon. Without my local library I might never have discovered Maya Angelou or Precious Ramotswe. My two most cherished series of books were initially library choices. I wasn’t expecting to really like either of them, but it was hardly a risk borrowing them for a couple of weeks to see if I could ‘get into’ them.

Every three weeks, we would take our children to the library to get books. My oldest used to be a prolific reader. My friend still takes his five kids up to the library regularly. If he wasn’t doing this with them, they would be fighting over turns on the playstation. Which is the more life enriching activity?

I admit I haven’t been to the library for a while but whenever I did, the computers there were always in use. Not everybody has a PC or internet access at home. For these people, the library is vital.

Look at it this way; whether you use a library or not, to lose this facility would be a terrible shame. Maybe we should all get out there and use our libraries while we can, because once they are gone, they are gone. And just maybe we should all get a little more motivated and fight to save the things that we have under-appreciated for too long.

The Plashing Vole said...

I'd forgotten about the provision of computers and things - very important.

One area had a concerted day of action: they got people to take out every single book in the library on the same day - a brilliant idea. Who's in?

Blossom said...

I'm in- already warned my boys that I'm dragging them to the library next weekend.