7 February 2011

Libraries gave us power *

Purley Library, where I learned to read
I’ve been thinking about the proposed cuts to public libraries, opposition to which has largely focused on the work that public libraries do to encourage children to read and enjoy books, and the role they play in creating communities.

True, this work is valuable. But I have another concern to share with you.

I used to work for Cambridgeshire public libraries.  While we attracted readers of all ages it seemed our library was stereotyped as a provider of books to young children and the over-60s.  We were considered too small to do anything else.  Keen readers were disappointed because we were unable to rotate the stock fast enough for them, and people coming in for anything like Sherlock Holmes or a Booker Prize winner had to place an order and join a waiting list – they didn’t stay.  On one occasion we had to make a huge fuss to order a book on Assyrian sculpture from the British Library for a reader with mobility problems.   Our issues declined and in the end the library was closed in a previous round of cuts.  Since then, Cambridgeshire Libraries, like other counties, has developed services which are much more responsive and community oriented within very restricted budgets.

Public libraries were created as a hub between the 19thc expansion in book publishing, the drive for self-improvement through education and the widening franchise; the Victorians were desperate to ensure the lower orders could make informed choices if they were going to get the vote.  Now the internet has become the place where most of us would go for information and debate; now we have ebooks, both are quoted as a justification for cuts.  So why bother with public libraries?

Firstly, we've got to keep them as a shared space at the heart of a community because, despite its many merits, not everyone has, will have, or will be able to afford access to the internet, and they are a place where active community engagement happens.  Secondly because in a country with such a rich literary culture it would be careless if not criminal to get rid of our traditional local gateway to literacy and the pleasure of reading books – books as books – for all ages.

Here a word on ebooks.  They are great for certain uses, print books are great for others; we can enjoy both.  But the former does not replace the latter; you pay for each ebook, whereas borrowing one from a library is free.  Ebook publishing is being driven by the manufacturers of the handheld readers who want to tie in publishers and authors to their particular device, both for their own immediate profit but also because they offer fantastic opportunities to market more product.  They are not in it for the texts themselves or the joy of reading
This brings me to my third reason.  The Victorians were right.  In a proper democracy we have to be assured of independent, authoritative sources to make informed choices.  Council tax payers fund public libraries so that everyone, including those who don’t pay, can use them.  They have a duty to be impartial and can’t be censored or their content suddenly removed. In whose interest do they operate?

Meanwhile, we are also paying Dell, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Apple, Tesco, Google, Amazon et al to provide us with information.  But in whose interests do they operate? 

So support public libraries because they are ours, shared and publicly accountable.  Without them we may move towards the privatization of both our information supply and the pleasure of reading.

The hobbit hole
 Mongoose librarian 

 *Maniac Street Preachers – Design for Life.  Famous in our family for the Mondigreen “Libraries gave us power, then “What Camera” set us free”.

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