Libraries are not wishy-washy cultural ‘love of books’ havens

I wrote this a few months ago when I was Books Editor at a regional magazine. I thought it was pretty strong in terms of its wording so was reluctant to publish but now re-reading it, it doesn’t feel strongly worded enough. Bristol is very lucky to only have one library close out of 27 and I say this because I am an avid reader of Public Libraries News and the devastation across the UK is just incredible. I urge you to read it and see exactly what is happening as the Conservative government devastates public resources.

What makes me even angrier than the government destroying our libraries is the wishy-washy cultural claptrap that fiction authors come up with at times like this. They focus on the beauty of literature and how it inspires the soul and how readers are better educated, perhaps, and that libraries are important because every child can find something that speaks to them in the pages of fiction.

FICTION.

Fiction is cheap. If you want fiction you can go to a charity shop and pick up a book for 50p. Fiction is wonderful and delightful and feeds the soul – perhaps – but it misses the huge role that libraries play in our democracy.

Do you know how much non-fiction books cost? If you were told you had cancer and you wanted to read about it in more depth and were thinking of buying a medical textbook, you would need to pay over £60. Books on science, politics, law, construction, engineering, anything that requires learning and education. Fiction is lovely but cheap. Knowledge is essential and unaffordable.

So I’m sick of people talking about how their grandfather used to take them to the library where they spent wonderful moments and decided to write more fiction so more children could have wonderful moments. The true crime of our libraries shutting down is the full-frontal assault on democracy and knowledge. The government is destroying sources of information. They are taking away the power from citizens of educating and informing themselves. What gets left afterwards is the mass of elite-owned media which so far have been supporters of the government.

The following shows just this when you consider how anti-Corbyn they have all been, including most importantly, The Guardian, even though it claims to be of the left:

“Other than that, we’ve got three London boroughs making waves. There’s a lot of action, notably from Unison, about Barnet’s proposal to cut library services and almost half their library staff in the process. Amazingly, the Shadow Chancellor comes out with a fulsome note of support for the protestors. That’s a real, very real, change from pre-Corbyn days.”

The following is what I wrote months ago. I didn’t expect to ramble on so much in the preamble and have probably said all I wanted to say. My point is that people talk of libraries as a privilege but they are not a privilege. They are an essential part of a functioning democracy. To call them a privilege is to allow them to be destroyed because in times of (manufactured) austerity all we can afford are the basics. Well libraries are the basics. They are the bare necessities and if you listen to fiction writers you will soon start believing that maybe they are not necessary after all.

The ‘cultural fiction narrative‘ is a decoy. Ignore it and remember that when you need information you won’t be able to afford it. If you need your soul to sing with the passion of someone’s artifice, you’ll probably find it at your local charity shop.

Anyway, here is the piece:

My bibliophile uncle who loved books so much that he rented another apartment for all of his, died recently. He was a lawyer.

He didn’t just find his cultural self and soul through middle of the range commercial fiction or classic literature that was published within the last couple of centuries. He found knowledge, information and education. He had the basis of culture.

Fiction makes up less than half of what a library can offer and it’s not until you need to learn about your history, the government, medicine, health or anything that requires a Dewey decimal number that you realise not every book costs around a fiver.

Libraries seem a privilege because they are associated with culture and entertainment but you have no idea what a privilege access to information is until you lose it.

At your local library, for £3.50 you can borrow any book published in the UK, including textbooks. Textbooks that can cost over £100.

I don’t begrudge fiction and I don’t think it’s just entertainment because it comes in large print, on ebook, in audiobooks (downloadable on my phone) , out to prisons and as part of a mobile library. It isn’t the fiction you can pick up at oxfam, it’s access and format and resources.

The necessity and privilege of being able to read Marx and Locke an John Stuart Mill is not greater than finding magic in Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl but taking away education and information is devastating to society. Taking away the fiction which describes and relates the magic of us to everyone is taking away a sparkle and lifeline from a certain section of our city.

When those consulting on our libraries look at the benefits to the city they consider everyone but not everyone has any interest in the library.

The weakest and most vulnerable have nowhere else to go because everywhere else requires some form of payment.

There are others who don’t need free books, access to daily newspapers and magazines or who have any interest in book clubs or readings or literary walks. They can afford access to information no matter what the cost and the library is not for them.

For lovers of libraries there is always a story of love and connection and access to the rest of the world through books. The stories seem personal but they are only individual in the sense that we divide public goods and share them amongst each other. We all benefit individually when we all grow culturally and as a society together. When it all breaks down we all lose as a society and more importantly grow in our isolation. This is exactly what Thatcher was talking about when she said there is no society there are only individuals.

Together we hold the safety net for the weakest, apart we protect only ourselves. We can only grow together. You take away our libraries and next you take away our power as citizens.

You think I’m exaggerating but I come from a family which houses its books in a flat of their own. The libraries in Bristol aren’t confined to one person- they are all of our mistress. Open access for all. Now that’s love.

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