Shh! About Saving Libraries

First published in Huffington Post

Everybody loves libraries don’t they? Earlier this month was National Libraries Day and the good people @IlikeLibraries are doing all they can “to help save libraries any way possible, and to promote them to the point where they are all safe from council cuts”. Ahh .. the cuts! Like the ‘cherished’ NHS and the wonderful welfare state of which we are all so apparently fond, libraries must be saved from the evil cutters.

You may have guessed that I’m bored by the anti’s protests about cuts, cuts, cuts and .. whisper it .. I’m none too keen on libraries either. This wasn’t always the case. As a young student bunking off college in search of some real intellectual sustenance I would find myself at Birmingham’s Central Library. It was quite the refuge for the curious-minded. And it seems I was in good company. Terry Pratchett has spoken of how his local library taught him more than his school ever could: “I wanted to read everything” he recalls “I wanted to know everything”. Today, I rarely set foot in one. If I want a bit of peace and quiet, and somewhere to read and reflect the last place I’m likely to visit is a library.

I don’t think I’m on my own here either. Recent figures show that the numbers of people visiting libraries fell last year as did the numbers of books issued. These rebranded community ‘hubs’ are teeming with activity that is hardly conducive to book-related endeavours at all. Between the parents with their gaggles of noisy kids, support groups and ‘stalls’ of all things, not to mention the so-called students getting on my bloody nerves chatting on their mobiles – God I sound old – libraries just aren’t libraries any more. According to Tiffany Jenkins one Scottish library has even resorted to pole dancing so estranged is it from its own mission. This desperation may be an attempt to see off the cuts by demonstrating that they aren’t at all stuffy but in fact, as Jenkins says, they are “inadvertently cutting their own throat”.

Librarians aren’t librarians any more either. They are glorified signposters and they look all the more miserable for it. That there are more volunteers in libraries than there are paid staff makes a sort of sense when their function has become so degraded. Library services are always the first to be threatened when local authorities are looking to make savings. They aren’t essential services in the way that, say, social services or schools are. So there is an inevitability in the talk of yet more closures. Last year there were reportedly 200 library closures and things are widely expected to get worse this year. And yet I for one find it hard to muster much support for defending libraries or librarians. I say this not because I am mean or a philistine but because having listened to the pleading of campaigners I no longer see the point in defending them. They aren’t what they were.

Why now, of all times, is there such a concerted campaign to save these once hallowed and now hollowed-out institutions? You wouldn’t think so if you listened to the stirring words of Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) president Phil Bradley: “An attack on a library service is nothing less than an attack on the community that it serves” he has said “and a closed library reduces the ability of people to empower and improve their lot.” If only. In truth what were once institutional embodiments of that Enlightenment spirit of learning and knowledge, of the need to collect under one roof the great works of our shared literary culture for the greater good, are no more. In defence of their library service Westminster librarians wrote an open lettertelling councillors about how they ‘promote health, community and citizenship’ all for less than 1% of the council budget.

If we need community hubs then let communities run them themselves. That’s what is happening in‘no frills’ Barnet where Occupy-style squatters did what they do best (which isn’t saying much) and took over a library closed by the council. Not that this should be confused with a proper defence of libraries either. That, on being Occupied, the “library became a community hub with events for children, [and] yoga classes” according to The Guardian, only confirms that the depressing consensus against real libraries extends to supposed radicals. They did, however, we learn and to their credit restock the library with 10,000 donated books. Thankfully they also had the good sense to court the support of the local community and have now handed it over, with the belated and no less begrudging blessing of Brent Council, to residents to run for themselves. Even in the absence of Occupy protesters climbing through cuts-threatened library windows why not hand over what are actually community centres anyway to the community? They’d do a much better job and they might even decide they want to not only take over the building but set up a real library dedicated to making the best that’s ever been written available for people to read.

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