To borrow John Lennon’s timeless lyric “I read the news today, oh boy”. Although if the truth be known, I “saw” the news, and the news was bad. There the familiar story went, of financial constraints, the seeming necessity to adapt to changing demands, the dubious (I’m being kind here) rationale that I should accept the fact that the old ways are changing, the old ways are redundant, the old ways are so much romanticism, so much cant. And the source of all this questionable wisdom? An economist; a young economist; a young economist brim-full of the simplistic, sterile, humanity crushing logic of the radicalised acolyte. And the object of her spleen? Our libraries.
So let me lay my cards on the table, I admit it, I have a vested interest here. And why? Because I took my degree in librarianship, and spent the first seven years of my career in academic libraries. You might say I’m a professional then, or was. But that’s not the real reason. Hell no! The real reason I have a vested interest is that I’m a citizen of this country; a citizen with rights and aspirations, brim full with tradition and experience. I once had what I want others to have too. I once enjoyed a privilege, nay – a right, to a public service, a longstanding provision, which helped shape the man I am today. And it galls me beyond reason that that universal right should be taken away from us all, as a matter of economic (and political) expediency.
So who do I think I am to care so much? I’ll tell you who … a boy brought up in a humble but fiercely proud working class family that nonetheless held dear to the principles of lifetime-learning and personal enrichment. We read, we questioned, we learnt, and we staunchly applied that learning to our lives, and brought it to bear on our interactions with others. Books were always in our home; some we bought, and some we borrowed. And those we borrowed came from the local public library.
Did you get that? “Public” library. You know the thing – libraries for the people; libraries as a democratic right; libraries that democratised too the provision of learning and entertainment materials. Libraries for all people, of all ages, from all backgrounds, that were local to your community, and free at the point of provision. Proud and valuable places run by proud and valuable people.
But what of them now, in our modern (what a chill that word sends down your spine) world? Are they to go the way of the costermonger, the chimney sweep, the bobby on the beat, not least the government of the people for the people? It would seem so.
But why all the fuss? What have libraries ever done for us? We’ve got the internet at our fingertips, what more could we want? I’ll tell you what. We want a place that is truly open and accessible to all, that is free at the point of enrichment, and that requires no investment in expensive technology to access it (and yes Ms. Economist, that investment is all too real and all too prohibitive for many poor people – remember them?). We want to embrace the opportunity to delight and benefit from the marvellous serendipity of browsing the shelves, discovering new authors, new ideas, new opportunities; stumbling across that inspiring reference work when you thought you wanted a novel. Delighting in the marvellously skewed world of “Winnie the Pooh” or “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”, when you know Dad has been made redundant, and Mum is on a zero-hours contract, and they can’t afford to buy you a copy of your own, bless them. And bless the philanthropists too, men like Carnegie who made their money, and cherished the opportunity to give something back (a sadly rare impulse amongst our contemporary financial and political elite).
And while we’re here, let’s spare a quick thought for the children of the poor. Go on, just try for a moment Ms. Economist. Spare a thought for how hard it was to kindle (no pun intended) their desire to read, to learn, to discover. Then think on how easy it is for you to extinguish that opportunity, to impoverish them, to watch that light gutter and die.
So I say, without reservation or fear of censure, damn the tunnel-visioned, long-term economic view, when it comes at the cost of our cultural identity, heart and soul. A metaphoric pox on the impoverished, academy-driven sweat-shop mentality, where the politically-cloned mathematicians, scientists, and financiers sneer down from their self-constructed pedestals, held aloft by self-interest and cultural myopia, at the arts for their “negligible” value.
How is it that our impoverished little Britain, once the proud exporter of taste, culture, design and vision, prefers now to export the very source of those things, rather than export their outcomes? How is it that we come to build a future upon the unstable foundations of finance, and let the fruits of our genius as a nation wither? The British car industry is gone forever. Our manufacturing industry is gone forever. Our healthcare, free at the point of delivery is in terminal decline. Rural public transport too, is gone forever. And libraries…remember them?
Since retirement I now waste my days (indeed – no financier I) in the worthless pursuit of cultural satisfaction. I work in an art gallery, and I write. As a self-published author I reluctantly embraced the allure of the electronic book. To many like me, the ubiquitous Kindle is a boon. But I tell you this, I would sacrifice it in a heartbeat for a volume or two on the library shelves.
So for pity’s sake … our public libraries … let’s shout their praise, not sing their requiem