On libraries

There’s a fine lyrical piece from Alan Bennett in the latest London Review of Books, looking back over the place of libraries in his life – including some lovely asides on the difficulty of getting shelves of books on stage to look anything like the working library of a real person.

With a national library cull going on, plenty of people have been writing about what it means for a society to be shutting down so much of such an inexpensive, precious system of public learning (no prizes for guessing which side I’m taking). But, as Bennett puts it towards the end of his piece,

I have been discussing libraries as places and in the current struggle to preserve public libraries not enough stress has been laid on the library as a place not just a facility. To a child living in high flats, say, where space is at a premium and peace and quiet not always easy to find, a library is a haven… And if we lose local libraries it is children who will suffer.

This is an important point. Today more than ever, reading – and many kinds of thinking, hoping, dreaming and planning – demands a kind and quality of space that it can be hard to find either at home or in public. Libraries aren’t just dustily anachronistic warehouses full of books. They are, above all, public places which everyone is welcome to enter. We enter them not as we enter a bookshop or mall – as consumers tolerated on commercial grounds, who can at any point have our licence to visit or linger revoked – but as citizens granted the right freely to read, learn, think and simply be in a space dedicated to these things.

I live in Streatham, and have used Tooting, Streatham and Brixton libraries for reading and writing in over the last few years – Brixton above all, because it has not just books but Wi-Fi access and, if you get there early enough, desks and plugs fit for writing on a laptop. You have to get there pretty early to find a free one, though. It’s a popular place. Like the Streatham and Tooting libraries, it’s also a fine Victorian building, built in 1892 by Sir Henry Tate as a gift to the public. And like those others, the services it provides are under threat of cuts.

This is not, I think, an argument about books. It’s about what a public building carefully stocked with books represents: a free encounter with culture, knowledge, learning, delight. Public libraries were one of the most radical and triumphant social projects of the 19th century. And the best impulses behind them remain as vital in the 21st.

Frankly, my feeling is that we ought to be increasing library budgets, and piping PCs and internet access into them all as fast possible. This would be one part of a civilised engagement with the 21st century. Instead, politicians lament the decline of social cohesion, educational standards and the attention spans of youth, while developing policies that seem to ensure the alignment of technology only with the crassest kinds of commercial motives, and the steady alienation of education’s historical virtues from those meant to be benefiting from and inheriting them.

Ultimately, our libraries need to be updated and invested in to be saved. What I suspect will happen, though, is more closures, and more hand-wringing over the shallowness of debased modern learning, thought and morals. Spot the connection?