Saturday, 4 February 2012

IT'S NOT ABOUT THE BOOKS! - A short note on libraries.

TODAY is National Libraries Day and there will be a lot of chat, a lot of noise about them. I love libraries. How could I not? My dad was a librarian. I spent much of my childhood hanging about in Bedford's County Hall library reading Jane's Fighting Ships. (I was a weird kid. Can't deny it).

 My dad helped design the colour scheme for the new Bedfordshire mobile library service in 1974 (Orange and grey. Dad what were you thinking? You should have asked mum. No, maybe not. Would have inevitably led to a row. God knows everything else did.)

For me, like loads of other people my age and older, libraries sparked off a lifelong reading habit that pretty much defines who we are. Libraries really did set us free.*

Despite that, the current debate around libraries is not about the precious books. I don't fetishise books. (you should see how I treat them. Like a dog treats a bone. Not too much reverence there.) It's about the public space. Libraries are the commons of the indoor world.  No one owns them. No one can kick you out of them, charge you rent for them, or sell them to you. They can ask you to keep your voice down and that's about it.

The professional classes have largely abandoned libraries. They get their books from Amazon or Waterstones, and they do their computing in Starbucks with a large coffee and a slice of something naughty but nice. A slab of something chocolaty. The professionals - the ABC1s - they can afford to pay the cappucino tax. And councillors and council officials are generally emphatically of the professional classes. And this is why they don't know that libraries are full. Full of ordinary working people thinking, reading, writing CVs, looking for work, getting advice, getting the news, studying or - sometimes - just keeping warm.

They're full of kids too. Because libraries are not just the last public space where someone won't try and make you buy a blueberry muffin to justify your seat - they are pretty much the last places where kids can wander without being run down by a car or happy-slapped by their peers.

People wanting to close libraries love it when the debate is about books. So don't do it, Mr library Campaigner! It's a trap! Make the debate about books and the bean counter will adjust his trendy European  style specs and intone statistics about book lending dropping 6.9% year on year, and tell you that current forecasts suggest that the last library book will be issued on September 19 2021 and will be by Catherine Cookson or Jacqueline Wilson. 

Don't make books your battleground. I work for the Arts Council and we have a thing we say - we say we want to Achieve Great Art for Everyone and libraries are key to this. Because libraries are where Everyone is. All those places where theatres aren't, galleries aren't, art centres aren't - libraries are. All those people who don't have wireless internet at home, who don't speak English at home, who don't have jobs - they're in the library. Those hard to reach Cs, Ds, Es - the Neets and the Neds. They're all in the library. It's a paradox isn't it? One of the things about Britain I like.

No, it's not about the books - it's about the PC's and a place to meet and talk and plan. If every time someone logged on to a PC it counted the same as a book being issued the bean counting man with the European style specs would have to revise his figures upwards. He would have to agree that libraries were growing more important not less.

And then, just sometimes, it IS about the books. Everyone's first interaction with the arts comes with a visit to the library as a dot, pushed there by proud parents. Every parent does this. Teenage parents do it, just as Islington yummy mummies do it. Even parents who can't read themselves do it. Every new parent wants the best for their kid and every new parent knows this means stimulation and exercising baby's mind as well as as body - and this means books. Kindles don't really cut the mustard when it comes to picture books and anyway who is going to let Millie, Molly, Polly, Olly, Apple or Harper Seven get their rusky fingers all over their new eThing? The germ that will become the next Alesha Dixon, the next Dappy or the next Chris Martin will be nurtured in the childrens section of the library just as the next Zadie Smith will be.

And let's not be fobbed off with 'iconic' mega-libraries either. (isn't 'iconic' becoming a euphemisim for 'disastrous'? - the Millenium Dome was 'iconic' the Scottish Parliament was 'iconic' the bleeding Titanic was 'iconic' in its day) Of course city centres should have their big libraries. Big libraries with hundreds of PCs, lots of meeting rooms, and all the archives and records for everyone researching their family history. And yes, they should probably have quite a few books as well.

But the estates need their libraries, the villages need their libraries. Britain is not just a country of major cities. It is actually a country of small and medium sized towns and semi urban estates - that's where the real action of the UK takes place. That's where people are living and loving, fighting and fucking. And where people live, love, love, fight and fuck. Well, that's where they need their library -their free space. Their place where they won't have to buy a blueberry muffin just to keep out of the drizzle.

*A note on the Manic Street Preachers, the band who put a love of libraries in the top ten of the hit parade (A Design for Life) - I hate them. they were boring before Richey left and only improved slightly after he disappeared. (and I saw them live during the Richey phase. Dreadful racket)  If You Tolerate This is quite a good song but for the rest - Jesus, they are Coldplay but with a copy of Das Kapital where the tunes should be. They were right about libraries though.


  1. Great post Stephen!
    I too share your passion for libraries. I grew up in a house where the only book was the Littlewoods catalogue and so the library was the place where I fed my hunger for books. Without my local library, would I be doing a Mlitt in Creative Writing today? Who knows but I do believe it's where my love of the written word is rooted and continues to grow.

    PS I'd love to know which colour scheme your mum would have picked for the mobile library service. I'm thinking maybe a 70's shade of deep purple...

  2. Thanks Helen - I don't know. She seems to favour magnolia these days...

  3. Replies
    1. cheers Megan - try and find a way of smuggling me down to Nottingham when my book's out (not long now) - If you build it I will come (anyway, everywhere...)

  4. A brilliant post. I too work for the Arts Council and constantly wax on about how we want great art for everyone and everyone can use the library, so therefore a perfect partnership!

  5. Fantastic post, Stephen.

    Since I came to Japan, I have been deprived of public libraries. I had known only mega-libraries, true, and enjoyed the English literature section of the UCL library most - dark and dusty - 24h open during the finals. Let me tell you two nice things I've noticed on the way: in Austria there are no library cards - everyone can enter and read. Second, at all monorail stations in Japan there is a book corner with free books to start reading while travelling and at the end, should you wish to, simply take home - return when you finish.

    No space to breathe or blueberry muffins, yet the books are there. The best you can get around here these days...