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A library shouldn’t be a glorified Starbucks

In order to defend libraries from government cuts we must first clarify what these institutions are actually for.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

Topics Politics

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In the face of reduced funding from central government, Britain’s local councils are looking for where best to make savings. Many seem to have concluded that, in competition with old people’s homes and other services, libraries are the most easily expendable. But libraries, as places to discover and enjoy books, are well worth defending.

The grim future for libraries is illustrated by Doncaster council, which has announced 14 out of its 26 libraries will have their funding removed. Such a choice becomes the only choice if there is a serious lack of imagination on the part of government as to how to get some economic growth going again, growth that could provide the resources for these invaluable institutions.

Did I say ‘imagination’? That brings me back to books and libraries… ‘Around her bare neck lay a rough hewn fichu – not made of the delicate lace she had recently worn. Her strained face remained impassive, shorn of powder or rouge and her brutally cut hair hidden under a common cap. She held her back straight as she mounted the steps to the guillotine…’

These are not the exact words, but close enough. Casting my mind back 40 years, I can remember the cover of the book, feel the sun through the huge glass window and relish the calm, and calming, silence around me. Even today, my stomach churns a little as I feel again the intense emotionality of empathising with ‘poor Marie Antoinette’ as described in some history book I’d found by chance in the local library. I was hooked. From then on, it was back for Baroness Orczy, onto Madame Tussaud’s to see the wax casts of the beheaded French royals, and back to the library for Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and an untold number of historical romances filled with characters with names like Armand and Marianne.

How was it possible a people could chop off the king and queen’s head? (We hadn’t got to Charles I in History at school). What had they done that was so terrible? Years later, when I knew more about politics and history, I could answer these questions. And partly by having read so freely and broadly, I became a little more discriminating – which is not to say I don’t still enjoy historical romances.

Now, of course, I am eternally grateful for both the writers and the library that enabled such a chance encounter that began a life-long love affair with stories of all kinds.

The public library was a sort of respectable brothel of the mind, a public place where I could indulge private inclinations. I could devour books with merry abandon – with no one watching me, with no one to pay, and with no parents or teachers to vet the choices I was making. Such libraries offer a rare experience of intense privacy that is also shared. Such freedom and ersatz emotions were to be had in a place where the good, the bad and the indifferent jostled next to each other, categorised only by their author’s surname.

The key point about this very traditional idea of a library is that it is both a cultural symbol that says ‘we value knowledge and think it should be available to all’ and an actual place to mentally escape from the restrictions of home and school. The sheer number of books was enticement enough – they were as physically and intellectually varied, no doubt, as their authors and readers. I peeked at de Sade long before I was ready for such material and found Sartre at just the right moment of adolescent angst.

Today there are more bookshops, books are cheaper, available online etc – and some bookshops have comfy seats and encourage ‘browsing’. But these are fundamentally places where you are expected to buy, not lose yourself for hours in a blissful silence rarely possible at home or at school, and certainly not in a shop. A consumer transaction, however worthy the product, is not an intellectual moment. The interpolation is different, as Louis Althusser might have said.

Even if I no longer go to libraries myself so often, I would prefer to live in a society that could say: ‘Yes, we think the gamut of ideas and emotions of people through the ages and from different places, as represented in books, are worth keeping.’ Even if we don’t agree with the content of all the books, their presence in a place set aside for their quiet enjoyment provides younger generations with the opportunity of the kind of chance encounter that I enjoyed.

So, I believe it’s wrong to cut public libraries, but I’m also less than enamoured with most of the arguments being made in their defence. Too many libraries are already transforming themselves into centres for a range of social activities – web surfing, book clubs, information on local services – as if providing ‘mere books’ were not enough. If the library is conceived of, and justified, in these terms, then the writer Richard D North had a point when he said on the BBC Radio 4 programme You and Yours this week that such services could be provided in a range of other places by people other than librarians.

The special loveliness of a library is felt when you step through the doors and feel your mind sigh with relief. The noise, the clutter and clamour of the world outside should, just for a while, disappear while you go on a planned journey or unexpected detour. And when you emerge back into the world outside, it is with different questions or feelings, or even a bit of knowledge that you did not have when you went in. It may be information on how best to get rid of greenfly from your roses, or how the question of freedom was thought of in Ancient Greece; it might be a feeling of regret that real life is less exciting than in a Mills and Boon romance, or it may even be having had a giggle at risqué words and pictures in books you don’t have at school or home. The library should be the home to all these things and more, not simply to whatever books and ideas pass the test of being ‘relevant’ or educationally approved.

Instead, the trend today is for libraries to invite the outside world in – and rudely shove the diminishing number of books to one side to make space. If libraries are merely another location to provide what already exists elsewhere, it does become harder to defend them against cuts. Libraries should not be justified by morphing into community centres or providing any provision other than that for which they are made: to make a wide range of books available in an atmosphere conducive to their enjoyment.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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Topics Politics

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