Yesterday I read an article on the Guardian website in which Jeanette Winterson raises concerns about the digitization of public libraries and the threat those libraries are now under from government cuts. I agreed with every word she said, and especially applauded her comment “If you start taking books off shelves then you are only going to find what you are looking for, which does not help those who do not know what they are looking for.”
I am absolutely certain that the coalition government, about which I could say plenty but will restrict myself for now, will be responsible for the closure of some public libraries and the consequent loss of committed and enthusiastic staff who don’t just love books, but love language, learning, and imparting information to those that more than ever need to access to it to ensure a fair society. I understand the argument that smaller, local libraries could be run by the community they serve but to suggest that there would be no need for a qualified librarian insults professionals who have taken years to build up their qualifications only to work on relatively low salaries.
After all, who hasn’t at some point thought they would like to work in a library? (OK – maybe not those who wanted to be astronauts or extreme sports instructors but you get my drift). If we are to have community run libraries, that should mean MORE access points, MORE books, but it appears that is not where the investment will be made. As Jeanette Winterson points out, digitization does not offer the same opportunities for browsing the shelves. How wonderful it is to find something unexpected by an author you have never heard of, and if it turns out to be a gory bloodfest instead of a romance, well hey it cost nothing to give it a try. Going digital also doesn’t replace knowledgeable staff and it most certainly doesn’t promote a love of books in future generations. A trip to the library can so stimulate the imagination that a lifetime of enjoyment and a world of possibilities is opened up to children from an early age. Even if a child is fortunate to have lots of books at home, just handing over the ticket and being allowed to borrow more makes them somehow more precious. Think how vital libraries become then to those on lower incomes who want to offer the same experiences to their children?
I shared the article on my Facebook page last night and I had a lot of comments from friends who clearly feel that a vital cultural link would be lost if our public libraries were to be lost to us in their current form.
‘I absolutely loved learning to read books as a child and enjoyed exploring life through books. It is one of my best memories…’ (Lou)
‘I can still remember the smell of the books and the creak of the wooden floors……and the silence. It was a place of endless possibilities. The “new” library has never held that magic for me….seems a bit too bright and dare I say noisy….but we continue to go none the less. ‘ (Fi and daughter Holly)
‘My whole family were mad bookworms and it has gone down through the generations. Libraries provide hours of free entertainment, education, imagination and discovery.’ (Jill)
It is books we want and books we need if we are to instil a love of language, or art, in our children. No amount of sitting in front of a computer or, heaven forbid, learning the classics from a DVD (another cost cutting suggestion) is going to do that.
This is beginning to feel a little bit like a rant for which I apologise. It is just that I remember, like my childhood friend Sally, the anticipation of a visit to North Finchley library in the ’70s. The children’s section was separate, to the right of the door. You went in with your four cardboard tickets, had what seemed like hours to choose what you would read for the next three weeks and then handed books and tickets to a quiet adult who would put the piece of paper from the pocket in the book into the pocket of your ticket and file it in date order (I think) in old wooden racks. To start taking books out of the adult library was a rite of passage – walking up stairs to the taller bookshelves and higher seating. It was quiet, yes, but not stuffy, or exclusive. They wanted you to read after all. As soon as my children were old enough to walk we went to the libraries in Brighton & Hove and were introduced to books by lovely librarians who got to them and pointed them to things they were sure to like.
Public libraries were established in the 19th century to support the access to education for millions of working people and they are NOT for the likes of George Osbourne, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, all products of an immensely wealthy upbringing with access to every educational advantage to start dismantling them. Please.
Picture credit Ian Wilson