Saturday, 5 February 2011

Save Our Libraries Day -- Saturday 5th of Feb.

In Britain we now have something called 'The Big Society'. For those of you who don't live here, this is the government's Grand Idea, designed to stimulate local entrepreneurial flare while pulling back the role of central government. I'm all for giving new ideas a go, but looked at from any angle it's hard to see the Big Society as much more than a Big Sticking Plaster slapped hastily over the effects of even bigger cuts in public spending. Cuts that plunge painfully near an author's bone when they they cause the loss of public libraries.

Of course, it's not just writers who should be worried. Everyone has something invested in the concept of the free lending library, whether they have forgotten what that is or not. And don't take my word for it. Philip Pullman's recent speech in Oxford, where the local council has decided that Big Society means the proposed closure of 20 of the county's 43 libraries, does more than anything else I've read to highlight the value of what we may be about to lose. Please take some time to read it (though the chances are you have already).

I'm lucky because my local library isn't threatened. It's a bright, clean, modern place, and never empty. But I know that this isn't always the case. Some have been allowed to become 'gloomy old buildings full of unread books', and many respond to their possible closure with disinterest. You have only to read some of the negative reaction to Pullman's speech to find out what a part of the British population thinks of libraries. And as their use is allowed to decline, some local authorities -- invited by government to 'be creative' in their response to the Big Society – have deemed libraries to be irrelevant and unprofitable (!), dead wood to be hacked off. An easy way to save money.

So much for being creative. A truly big idea would see our less popular, shabbier libraries re-vitalised as centres of literacy and civic pride, designed to counter the numb-skull notion that we don't need them 'coz it's all on the internet'. Like Pullman, I want to live in a Long Society that remembers the past and invests across generations, not a short sighted one that can't see beyond next year's accounting and the vague positives of 'bigness'.

In 1994, Norwich central library burnt down. It was a traumatic event for the city, and I sensed the ruin and shock of it even though I no longer lived there. I used the library as a boy, and remember it as a grand and sober institution, a repository of local history stretching back a thousand years, a lending library stacked to its high ceiling with upright spines. It may not have been a very joyful place for a child, but there's something especially bitter about the stink of burning history and books, however old you are.

Norwich responded to this disaster not by rebuilding a cheap imitation of what was lost (as many called for), and certainly not by grabbing the chance to cut spending, but by finding the courage and foresight to create something innovative: a 21st Century forum.

The Forum is not merely a new, modern library, but a beacon of cultural and civic life, with conference rooms, caf├ęs and even (horror!) shops. But it's most emphatically not a Mall. It is what all libraries, even small branches, could aspire to be with the help of some genuinely creative thinking from local and central government: a crossroads and meeting point for ideas, friends, and all aspects of regional cultural life; an icon of local identity; a temple to information in all formats. In short, a place that will still be relevant when the 'Big Society' is nothing more than a passage in a history book. A book anyone in Norwich will be able to read because they have such a cracking library.

Thanks to Phil Bradley for the picture.


  1. A library is not a mere depository for books. Our local library is the hub of the community and much goes on there. I suspect the same is for all good libraries. Library closures have to be the idea of civil servants who do not read for pleasure and take their work home in the evenings. Even politicians (of all persuasions) have to be able to recognise the value of libraries - even if it is only with respect to saving them for their own re-election!

  2. I'm with you, Cat. And given what you say about civil servants, I'm sure you'll find this article interesting:

  3. Thomas,

    They say "Big Society" I just hear "cuts". Libraries - free public libraries - are a cornerstone of civilisation. Fortunately, my own isn't threatened either but I'm absolutely with you here. I love the idea of a "long" rather than a "big" society.

  4. "Big Society" sounds like most big talk.

    Boom - oops :(

    Library cuts are nothing new, unfortunately. I grew up in a town which lost its identity and got swallowed around the time when the ridings of Yorkshire became districts. The libraries were soon to follow until only the largest towns still had them. Books were sold off or moved to the ramainng sites. The cuts were made to sound appealing as inter-library loans would cover the loss of books nearby but the people in the now libraryless villages lost out all round. The largest town's library - the one where all the books were supposed to have gone - got a face lift, looked the business, too - but it had less books after the "improvements" than before. Staff said there was no budget left for new books and the old ones weren't recovered. Now it's Oxford and not Barnsley this is happening to, people are starting to do something about it. Talk, like towns, has to get Big before anyone will listen. So yes, save the libraries, stop the cuts, save your histories and heritage because when where you grew up - where you came from - is reduced to Tesco express and a row of charity shops, then it all feels a little like running only when the finishing line's in sight.

  5. I'm so sorry to hear of the library closures in your country. It is a sad thing when the value (potential or actual) of a library is over looked.

  6. Thanks for the comments. On the positive side, the 'Big Society' is one government fig leaf that turned transparent pretty quickly. It was interesting the see Liverpool, one of the five 'vanguard areas', pull out of the initiative just a few days ago.

    Lots of busy book-borrowing yesterday. let's hope some at least of those threatened libraries can be saved.

  7. That is so sad! I do hope some of the libraries can be saved.

    I have 6 different public libraries that I can drive to in ten minutes or less. They are all busy all the time. I so grateful for all of them.


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