Saturday, 5 February 2011

Do We Need Libraries?

There is much agitation among readers, writers, parents and community groups at the announcement of cut-backs to our library system here in Britain.   In many areas it's proposed that libraries should be closed and the premises sold off to provide Council savings.   My first reaction has been absolute horror. Anything that promotes books has to be good.  But then I began to think very carefully.  In the last couple of years I've hardly been through the door of my local library at all - I don't seem to be using it any more.  What has changed and do the government have a point?

I owe everything to the library system.    When I was a small child, living in one of the most remote areas in England without electricity or television, my imagination was fed by books. And those books were supplied by a travelling library van which arrived at the bottom of the main road once every three weeks.  I can still remember the excitement - skipping along beside my mother on the long walk down to the van, wondering what books I'd be able to choose.


Later, as a writer with young children, the library provided a quiet haven in which to write.  It also meant that living in a rural location didn't cut me off from research - the library would order me any book I needed for a straight 50p admin fee - some came from America, some from the British Library.  I couldn't have written my early biographies without these facilities.

I didn't earn much as a single parent, so when the libraries began to stock CD's and DVD's I was able to borrow music and film free of charge for those long evenings in.  And before I was able to buy my first computer,  I rented internet time by the hour in my local library.


So what's changed?  Why am I not using them any more?  One reason is money.  The libraries have been stretched so many ways they are strapped for cash, buying fewer books and charging customers the full fee for services.  I very rarely order books there now - a British Library loan for an out-of-print book will cost me £7.00 and I can usually buy a second hand copy of the book I want from the Oxfam Book Barn for under a fiver.   There are also fewer of the biographies and novels I want to read on the shelf - for new publications or prize-listed fiction there's such a long waiting list, I've usually acquired a copy myself by the time my name comes up.  In fact I've given up putting my name on the list.   The reference sections of my local libraries have fared even worse, being drastically reduced, and - let's face it - most of the information they once supplied can be found on the internet now.

The travelling libraries are a thing of the past as modern transport networks have improved.  Our libraries are also going to have to adapt to the introduction of new technologies (including E-Books) - they're going to have to find new roles in the community.  If we want libraries then we're going to have to help them to survive by defining what we want from them and then fighting for it.

Readers' Groups! I can hear you say.  Yes, they're great and a very important part of  developing relationships between readers and writers.  But many of them meet in people's homes or arts centre cafes instead of the libraries and whereas the library used to purchase a 'set'  of particular titles for ongoing use, some local groups have told me that they prefer to purchase their own copies of the books rather than borrow.

Readings/workshops by writers?  These are rare now, since the libraries don't have the money to pay for them - it used to come from Literature Development funds which have been starved almost to extinction by recent cut-backs.  Bookshops host them more often these days, but you're expected to do it as publicity and the shop hopes to recoup any expenses from sales.

Me - aged three and already addicted!

But one of the absolutely essential functions of a library is to introduce young children to books.  Campaigns such as 'Books for Babies' can make such a difference.  I want all children to experience the kind of pleasure I used to feel, trotting down the road towards the Library Van, for another dose of the drug that became a lifetime addiction - books!


My favourite library - the old reading room at the British Library

So the problem seems to be the commercialisation of everything - the Library is reduced from a service, educational, focussed on reader development, providing a community resource - to a function that can be costed and judged by the number of people who use it and the values of  commercial management-speak.  The same commercial values are being applied to other nurturing services - like health and education.  I can see that things need to change, but we risk losing something very, very, precious.

The Guardian are running a live blog for the Save-the-Libraries Campaign.

2 comments:

  1. I was talking to my brother (lives in Coventry) about this very subject last night. He is a public library user and sees this as well as all the measures regarding education and health as directly aimed at the poor. The powerless keep going on paying for the mistakes of the rich.

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  2. Absolutely true Al. The current government are all public school educated, went straight into politics from university and have millionaire families. They have no idea of the world that ordinary people inhabit. Very sad - and dangerous!

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