Home > libraries, privatisation > Libraries Gave Us Power pt 2

Libraries Gave Us Power pt 2

I’m currently reading The Library Book, a collection of writing by, erm, writers on just how bloody brilliant public libraries are.

I’ve always loved libraries and, indeed, now find myself working in one, so it is perhaps to be expected that I really, really like this book. Really. There are some excellent pieces in there but the one that has most struck me most so far is Alan Bennett’s contribution, Baffled by a Bookcase, originally an extended essay in the LRB, which can be found here. Written in July 2011 Bennett waxes lyrical about the way in which the public library shaped him but also, at the end of the piece, makes salient points about the threat to libraries and the politics around that threat:

I have been discussing libraries as places and in the current struggle to preserve public libraries not enough stress has been laid on the library as a place not just a facility.To a child living in high flats, say, where space is at a premium and peace and quiet not always easy to find, a library is a haven.

There is much truth in this and as Bennett goes on to state councils closing branch libraries and then trumpeting about the wonderful new ‘central’ facility they have are somewhat missing the point:

For a child a library needs to be around the corner. And if we lose local libraries it is children who suffer.

Bennett approaches this from his own experiences as a child and his use of the local library, and it is a true statement; but the loss of local libraries, as with all local services, can impact on the community as a whole. Older people use libraries a great deal and rely on being able to access one local to them – even if it is a smaller branch which doesn’t hold what they need, they can request that a copy be sent there for them to pick up. And libraries aren’t just about books anymore; at my library, in one of the ‘better’ areas of the borough, a large proportion of our footfall is accounted for by people studying and using our IT services for job searches or printing CVs. In the ‘poorer’ areas of the borough other libraries provide homework and job clubs where IT resources are more scarce in the home. The library I work in is one of the ‘super libraries’ Bennett alludes to but it doesn’t exist at the expense of the smaller branches; in fact, in the last few years several new branches have opened and we were told earlier this year that libraries are ‘safe’ until at least 2014, a forward thinking statement in these times of government inspired and enforced austerity, something that Bennett also comments on:

The business of closing libraries isn’t a straightforward political fight. The local authorities shelter behind the demands of central government which in turn pretends that local councils have a choice. It’s shaming that, regardless of the party’s proud tradition of popular education, Labour municipalities are not making more of a stand… It’s hard not to think that like other Tory policies privatising the libraries has been lying dormant for 15 years, just waiting for a convenient crisis to smuggle it through.

I would go further than that and say that the Tory/neoliberal plan to create a ‘smaller state’ has been in place for the last 30 years, hardly dented by the ineffective period of Blairite Labour rule.

The Library Book is published in aid of The Reading Agency and all royalties go towards its excellent work in encouraging people to read. One of their initiatives is the Summer Reading Challenge for children; in my library alone over 500 children took part this year with more than half completing the challenge, an increase of nearly 40% on 2011. Amid the proliferation of ‘serial’ books about monsters and fairies, it’s wonderful to see that authors like Michael Rosen, Roald Dahl and Jacqueline Wilson are very popular. The Reading Agency also runs the Six Book Challenge which encourages adults to read more. As well as Bennett the book contains pieces by Stephen Fry, China Mieville, Lionel Shriver, Nicky Wire and many others. It is a good and worthy (in the best sense of that word) investment, both financially and emotionally. Libraries are a vital part of our communities and there is valuable work being done by organisations such as Voices for the Library and The Library Campaign. I and countless others have gained immeasurable joy and knowledge from public libraries and they have shaped part of what I am today; we cannot simply stand back and let these opportunities be taken away from future generations.

  1. November 3, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    Thanks for those musings. I always encourage people to use their local libraries (instead of buying books) to keep them viable. It will always be an endangered service if we don’t use it to the full.

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