Britain is today celebrating National Libraries Day, though the celebrations are unlikely to be mistaken for the Queen’s diamond jubilee, say, or the London Olympics. And although the occasion represents, more than anything, a form of protest, one does not sense the prime minister cowering in terror.
Free draw at all West Berkshire libraries! Big book sale at South Petherton! Coffee morning at Morpeth! “Where’s Wally?” competition at Waterlooville!
There is also a charming new slim volume, The Library Book, in which two dozen writers rush, in their own ways, to the rescue of an institution in distress: Stephen Fry talks of his discovery of Oscar Wilde via the Norfolkmobile library; Julian Barnes imagines a not-too-distant future of library burning; Alan Bennett (his presence is compulsory) reminisces splendidly about Leeds circa 1940. All this is, of course, preaching to the converted, which in theory is a useful first step before working on the unconverted.
The most accurate-looking count I can find suggests that of the 4,612 public libraries (including mobile ones) that existed in the UK last April, 407 are now closed, on death row, facing privatisation or being handed over to the community to be run by volunteers. Frankly, the last two options both sound like mere stays of execution. This is, of course, a direct result of Britain’s austerity measures, imposed by ministers whose local libraries, you might think, had insufficient copies of the works of JM Keynes.
Machiavelli may have been more readily available: the government outsourced the first wave of cuts to local councils, enabling ministers to stand back and disclaim responsibility. The councils then successfully allowed the focus to fall on libraries, which typically constitute less than 2 per cent of their spending, knowing that would galvanise the literate middle class. This could have two entirely separate purposes: Labour councillors might wish to arouse public indignation, in the hope that it would attach itself to the government rather than them; the government’s allies might wish to deflect attention from more significant measures.
This is not wholly a British phenomenon: in the US, central libraries – not just neighbourhood branches – have been threatened in, for example, Troy, Michigan (saved at the last minute) and Gary, Indiana. Since what goes on in the Midwest rustbelt is of little moment in New York or California, these cases have created very little fuss.
However, the British hoo-ha has gone beyond coffee mornings and Where’s Wally? competitions, and occasionally bordered on the histrionic. “To close a library is a crime,” said Michael Morpurgo. “We have to stand up against the barbarians,” cried Philip Pullman. In north London a group of celebrities unsuccessfully challenged Brent Council in court. Even the magazine Private Eye, the nation’s most reliable debunker of passing orthodoxies, has gone all didactic on us: “Six Myths About Why We Don’t Need Libraries Any More”.
There have also been elements of the hilarious: Zadie Smith has told, in The Library Book and elsewhere, how she grew up in a flat lined with books, most of them stamped with the words, Property of Willesden Green Library. “It was a happy day in our household,” she wrote, “when my mother spotted a sign pinned to a tree in the high road: “Willesden Green Library, Book Amnesty.” This was not her mother’s version. She told the Mail on Sunday, with a mother’s sad sigh: “I think Zadie was using a bit of creative licence.”
Then, last month, the artist Jamie Reid, most famous for designing the Sex Pistols’ most outraging-the-bourgeoisie album cover in the 1970s, intervened. He has, according to the London Evening Standard, “designed prints with the slogans ‘Education is a birthright!’ and ‘Free the books/ books for free/ save Kensal Rise library’ and put them on display during the Moods of Norway art exhibition at the Paul Stolper Gallery in Los Angeles.” I am not making this up. Heaven knows what Norway has to do with it.
Two precedents spring to mind. The obvious one is the 1980s when the chattering classes hurled themselves, screaming, against the brick wall of the Thatcher government. Perhaps more apt is the analogy with the response to the closure of much of Britain’s railway network in the 1960s. The lists of dead and dying libraries have the same poetic solemnity as the old lists of doomed stations: Allerton Bywater, Armley Heights, Baddesley Ensor, Barham Park, Bedworth Heath, Belle Isle ... And, perhaps most picturesquely, Foggy Furze in Hartlepool, closed for the grand annual saving of £47,536, slightly more than a quarter of the council chief executive’s salary. Hartlepool, a reasonable body double for Gary, Indiana, has fewer celebrities than Brent.
The connection, however, is more profound than that. The Public Libraries Act, the crucial moment in the development of this public service in Britain, was passed in 1850, just as the railways were spreading across the country. The act was opposed by the same romantic Tories who hated the railways, although the intentions of its proponents were not necessarily wholly benign. According to one study, advocates saw the public library “as a counter-agent to evils rather than as a positive force for educational and recreational benefit”.
And now all the Foggy Furzes, like the country stations, are being mourned by people who never made use of the facilities when they existed. Among adults, library usage has been declining quite sharply – there were 253m book issues in 2003-2004 and 215m in 2008-2009. Against that, the figures for children’s books are up. And the other side of the argument also holds good: Dr Richard Beeching, the Fat Controller who axed the trains, could read a balance sheet but utterly failed to predict the renewed importance of railways in the 21st century. One detects the same lack of strategic vision behind the current tactics.
For library closures are not a global phenomenon. South Korea has just announced plans to spend £300m on opening 180 public libraries, with the specific aim of promoting reading. And that might well send a shiver down David Cameron’s spine.
The British picture is not uniformly bleak: three of England’s largest cities, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, are all engaged in projects to open either new or completely reconstructed central libraries – schemes dating back to what might one day be considered Good King Gordon Brown’s Golden Days. However, another big city central library, in Bradford, is largely closed, with no clear plans for re-opening, due to past structural neglect.
These new libraries will not be wholly traditional. Manchester council’s website says: “In the past, libraries were all about books. Now they’re about people,” which is the sort of drivel you expect on council websites. To some extent, British libraries have been about people ever since the Mental Health Act of 1983 released large numbers of inpatients into what was euphemistically known as “care in the community”, which often meant the care of the only warm free-of-charge place available, ie the library.
However, libraries are, were and always should be about access to knowledge, a word that goes beyond mere information, and includes the stimulation and self-awareness that comes from reading fiction. All that has changed is that the methods of disseminating knowledge have become more varied. My own large collection of reference books is now largely unthumbed. For me, as for almost everyone else, the first step towards fact-checking now comes via Google or Wikipedia. The important thing is that it should not be the last step. And that our children should move on from the crawling and toddling stages of cutting and pasting the first page they find and move on to confident voyages of discovery in the vastness of cyberspace – and books.
It is obviously in the national interest to make this happen, rather than handing the planet’s intellectual leadership to the South Koreans. But it no longer seems either necessary or sufficient to house a feeble collection of volumes in a dreary building on every High Street.
What people need first and foremost is easy access to a computer, a fast connection, a quiet, warm place to use it and, if need be, someone to help them do so. It seems to me this should be the basic public obligation: for those unable to afford computers; for the benefit of kids trying to study in overcrowded flats with paper-thin walls; for old people terrified of the technology; perhaps for those released under mental health legislation; even for the bourgeoisie whose broadband has crashed (“nightmare!”). I haven’t been to Foggy Furze lately but I suspect it is a bit light on internet cafés.
The provision of books remains a vital but secondary obligation, which in such places might most sensibly be focused on children. But these neighbourhood learning centres could also function as shop windows and agents for the reinvigorated central libraries. There is as yet no wholly satisfactory method of loaning books via e-readers but one will doubtless emerge.
There is another potential place where a love of reading could sensibly be inculcated into the young. It is called “a school”. Unfortunately, many teachers seem largely to have given up on this. A librarian friend at a middling big city comprehensive school says the magician-inspired boom in pre-teen reading has now largely played itself out. “I find the 11-year-olds still get some books for Christmas and still read a bit,” he says. “But at that age the parents may have some control over what they do. As they get older, say 13, they’ve got so many things competing for their time, and they seem to stop completely.
“It’s been really noticeable the last five years as Facebook has taken hold. I did a survey asking if there was a book they would like to recommend. The older kids nearly all came up with the same answer: ‘Nope.’” Tomorrow’s councillors, probably.