Today is Save Our Libraries Day, a national day of protest, action and awareness raising against library cuts.
I’ve been using libraries for almost my entire life. I can just about (albeit hazily) remember being 3 or 4 and going for the first time to the children’s corner in Lincoln library’s junior section. Three brand new cardboard tickets were my passport into this previously parent-only world. Yep, you handed over your tickets in return for books, a slip was removed from the book and placed in the slot in your ticket, before the whole lot was stored in special racks behind the counter. All manual in those days!
Having worked my way through no end of colourful picture books, progressing onto gently wordy stuff like Mary Plain and Bobby Brewster it was suggested that I might like to explore the main junior section. Holy crap! There were just SO many books, and some of them were HUGE! This was the age (7-10) when I was really ploughing through books, especially the old classic adventure novels, and there was a seemingly never-ending supply of new stuff to discover.
I then progressed onto the teenage room (seriously, a whole ROOM of teenage books, mags and records) and then came the next life-changing moment. At 14, I was allowed to become a full member of the adult library. This occupied the main body of the building, with dusty wood-panelled reading rooms, mysterious flagstoned corridors and just miles and bloody miles of books. The tickets were different, too… you got a little booklet of tear-off paper tickets, like Post-It notes, and although there was a “fair usage” system, there was no limit to the stuff you could borrow.
This coincided with my early days of playing guitar and learning about music, so the stock of guitar tutor books and music scores was even more exciting than football and girls combined. Geeky teenage hormones went into overdrive when, enquiring about some obscure music book, I was told that I was allowed to join the Lincoln Music Library, over the other side of the city centre. HOLY CRAP! Over the next four years or so, I probably visited that place twice weekly, and worked through no end of guitar books, classical scores, biographies, crappy badly transcribed songbooks…
Of course, seeing a huge university library was a whole new level of Dubya-Tee-Eff which, for a while, made me a bit frustrated with public libraries (“I’m sorry, you have absolutely NO Danish existential poetry from the Modern Breakthrough era?”) but that soon passed. Since then, whenever we’ve moved house, the quality and accessibility of the local library has been as important a criterion as the railway station, a decent pub, low crime levels and all that house-hunting stuff. I just can’t live without a decent library. I’ve been lucky, always living a 10-minute (or less) walk from Lincoln, Norwich, Sutton and Epsom libraries… all excellent resources.
And, by way of a rambling anecdotal case for the defence, that’s why the proposed library cuts across the country amount to cultural vandalism. I live a fairly middle-class life, but I seriously doubt if I’d be able to afford to buy all the books I read. How does a single mother with three kids cope? Not reading at all is, sadly, an all-too-common outcome. It’s not just about the ability to buy books, either, it’s about the choice of independent learning and enrichment outside of the market system.
I’m not blaming the councils on the whole. Some have responded better than others, in doggedly and proactively trying to maintain library services within the restricted budgets. Some services, for the very young, very old and infirm, simply have to take precedence, and I don’t envy anyone trying to make sense of a council’s finances under the new order. No, the blame lies squarely with a culturally bereft and elitist government. Politicians pay lip service to “social mobility”, but along with a decent public transport system, the public library is a surefire way to guarantee social mobility. But it’s just lip service… auto-didacticism has a nasty whiff of old-school socialism, doesn’t it? Miners and builders… reading BOOKS? Whatever next!
The public library system is the most effective conduit we have for universal free speech and the free flow of information; WikiLeaks can only dream of such a wide coverage and influence. Don’t get your hopes up about the next (party unspecified) government being able to reinstate the services during the next boom. Those gaps will have been filled by supposedly profitable private sector initiatives. If we allow this great public resource to be eroded, we’ll never get it back.