The Mid-Atlantic Blog

January 20, 2006

Pulling Up The Library Ladder

£80 million of lottery money is about to be spent, says The Times, on British Libraries, but none of it on books.

Instead it will pay for buildings to be adapted for “services”, including Citizens Advice Bureaux and benefits — crèches, mother and toddler groups and t’ai chi, Pilates and fitness classes.

Now, some of these may well be very worthy indeed. But, as the article points out, this is coming at a time when 50 libraries are said to have been earmarked for closure in the last week alone.

And listen to the quote from Stephen Dunmore, from the Big Lottery fund, which is giving the grant:

The whole idea is that libraries provide a focus for community activity, converting the space so that it can be used in a more imaginative way. Libraries are about books, but there are ways of learning which don’t have to be book-based.

This rather misses the point, don't you think? There may well be ways of learning which don't have to be book-based. Museums, for example. National Trust properties. Swimming pools. Schools. Night Classes. The internet, even. Libraries, though, are about books.

Why does this matter? A whole bunch of reasons. In a library we are all equal, with equal opportunities, and equal access to books. In a library a child from an otherwise underprivileged background can, should they wish, find a way out for their intellect (which will be useful for them whatever they eventually choose to do with their life). In a library we can find real depth of thought. In a library we can find opinions we wouldn't always find on-line going to our familiar web-sites, and can read them more deeply than looking at a screen. In a library a child can learn a love of books that can stay with them for their whole lives - their feel, their smell, their weight.

Who loses from this? The poorest, who don't get the chance to go to Amazon and drop £50 on a whim. Children, to whom whole avenues of our culture will be less available. All of us, because there is something powerful about the mere feeling of a huge building full of knowledge that you can't get anywhere else.

I'm a huge user of libraries even today, and many of my happiest early memories are of having the chance to go to our library (I can still see it and smell it 30 years later) and pick out a huge pile of books for the coming week, so I guess part of the reason for this screed is a personal, visceral reaction.

But it's more than that. We can't lose (though I fear we have already to a large extent) the ideas that motivated the foundation of this place, for example, in 1680. Libraries have been a huge source of good in our country, lifting many from poverty, and ensuring that everyone, whether miner, unemployed, call centre worker, doctor or investment banker has access, should they wish, to the best ideas humanity has created. We should be encouraging more money to be spent on books and more grants from the new rich (look at what Carnegie did with his money, for example).

And we should not be throwing out books.

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