It may not surprise you to learn that I was a voracious reader as a kid, with a book addiction far beyond what my pocket-money and the resources of my relatives could support. The kind of child who reacted with delight rather than groans to gifts of book tokens each birthday and Christmas, one who always had a well-maintained ‘to read’ list close at hand.
But we were never mega-rich and – without wanting to recreate the Four Yorkshiremen sketch – birthdays and Christmases didn’t seem to roll around fast enough back then. So the local library saved us. I got enough to read and nobody went bankrupt buying me books. Getting my first library card felt like a huge deal, for the promise it held and perhaps most of all, the freedom it offered. My parents would head towards the grown up books while my brother and I would be left in the kid’s section, where we would usually read a couple of books while we were waiting, eventually whittling down a huge pile into the four we were allowed to take out that week. Mum and Dad would cast an eye over our choices and sometimes make suggestions, but I don’t remember anyone ever telling me what to read. For the clever, bookish kid I was, and hopefully still am, it was a little slice of heaven.
That said, I don’t want to you to think that this is some misty-eyed, far off reminiscence. More recently, when I was saving money to retrain as a teacher and come to Japan, quickly realising that the whole plan would fail unless my bookshop habit was broken, it was Hackney Central Library that came to the rescue. A bit different to the one of my childhood, with its architectural wonder of a building and electronic cards, my inner child still jumped for joy on hearing that you could take out 12 – 12!!! – things at once, including CDs and DVDs. And my outer grown up was incredibly grateful for the ability to renew everything online, especially when having to work late on the day it was all due to be returned. It was a love rekindled.
The final stage of my library romance before I left the UK took place, fittingly you could say, in one of the most beautiful buildings in my home city of Liverpool, the Central Library. I was lucky enough to become a member shortly before it was closed for a major refurbishment, enjoying the atmosphere as much as the books I took home. There has been some disquiet about what the redevelopment plans might mean for the library’s collections as, perhaps inevitably, the focus moves away from the printed word towards providing access to other forms of media. I am inclined to be pragmatic, if that is what is needed to keep the library open, then I am for it.
For it should be clear to all who love borrowing books, even if only as a fond memory, that it faces a grave threat. If today’s children are to have that joy of books revealed to them in the same way, we who love libraries need to join the fight and soon. It seems someone has decided that the handing out of books for free is a luxury from a bygone age that can no longer be afforded. In scenes that call to mind other historical outrages, Brent Council in North London launched a ‘cowardly’ midnight raid on Kensal Rise library, despite a campaign by local residents to save it from closure which made the news as far away as Toronto. Stripping the building of books and furniture, which campaigners say the council had promised to leave behind, as well as removing a plaque commemorating the library’s opening by Mark Twain, are unforgivable acts of cultural vandalism. The forces of stupid have won another victory.
As one commentator on Twitter noted:
They even unscrewed a 112 year old brass plaque commemorating the library's opening. This government is the enemy of love, knowledge and joy
— Chris Coltrane (@chris_coltrane) May 29, 2012
I know that you might be thinking that while there are massacres in Syria, police beating protestors in cities from New York to Athens to Cairo, economic meltdowns, actual nuclear meltdowns and a thousand other stories of death and destruction, what difference does it make if some children don’t have access to free books, or pensioners don’t have somewhere to go for a sit down and a chat with friends? Books are the past, baby! Everyone has access to all the libraries of the world via their smartphone, libraries are yesterday’s news.
The decisions we take today have consequences far beyond what we imagine. At present, with the array of problems – economic, political, environmental, technical – that we face, it is incredibly important that we do not do anything which amps up the stupid any further. We need minds open to discovery, wonder and ideas which break away from the norm. Libraries give us that. Often you find books in libraries which you cannot find anywhere else – as I did when I stumbled across a recent reissue by a long-forgotten Liverpool author and friend of George Orwell, James Hanley, in the Central Library – and crucially, you find things you weren’t expecting when you are looking for something else. That would seem very inconvenient and inefficient to the Google algorithms, I am sure, but I believe that it is essential to human endeavour. The things we discover when we believe we are looking for something else entirely are often the most valuable.
So, join in. Kensal Rise has a ‘Friends of’ group which is seeking to run the library for the benefit of local residents. Perhaps your own local library is also being threatened. Or perhaps it isn’t under threat at all, and is still happily open to the public, but you haven’t visited for ten or twenty years. In which case, I suggest heading down there as soon as is reasonably practical.
You never know what you might find.