Monday 6 December 2010

Our Libraries are Under Threat

Throughout the UK and I suspect throughout many other countries libraries are threatened with closure. This feels to me as bad as burning books. Where would I be now if it hadn’t have been for some excellent libraries? I’ve recently worked out that if and when I retire – I’ll be 59 in a couple of week’s time, so this is a serious consideration- I’ll not be able to keep on buying books at the rate I do now. I was relying on the free bus pass and the library in town as a way of getting round this.
When I was a child I couldn’t afford books either. I remember very clearly the Easter holidays of the second year at junior school. This was the year I discovered the Famous Five. I was at the library every day changing my books. Of course, I soon got though all of the Famous Five books and went on to what my teachers no doubt labelled “better things”. Having access to so many books at that age is probably what allows me to be a writer today – and also a lover of reading.
Later, as I started reading fluently in French and German I was glad to be able to borrow books in those languages because then the cost of importing them was prohibitive.
University meant owning books, so I neglected the public library for a few years, though I made great use of a university library. Then, a few years on, came the children and weekly visits to the library became a part of our family routine. I loved going to the library with the kids and helping them to choose the books I would later read out to them.
The children grew up. I started studying first for an MA and then a Ph D. This brought me in touch with university libraries again but the municipal ones were also important: I was studying writing for children. Indeed now that I’m teaching at university level I recommend that students on two of my modules join the town library: if they want to write children’s; literature or need to write an essay about it they will never afford to buy as many books as they need to read in order to understand. Our university library stocks a few titles but it cannot afford to stock as many as they need to read. Besides, going to the children’s section of the library gives the students some contact with children.
As we gradually take on e-book technology, no doubt the role of the library will change a little. But it will remain a great force in keeping books alive. It will stock older editions of books and different libraries may distribute different types of e-literature. The physical buildings still need to be there with their shelves, reading and studying spaces. Even the most financially stable of us need them occasionally. For instance, I use Bolton’s library whilst my car is being serviced. This library provides decent study space, though, for me, the rows upon rows of interesting books and the interesting people are a distraction. Other people who visit are mums with young children, college students, retired people, and mature people, possibly out of work, who are clearly studying to better their prospects. The computers with internet access are popular and thank goodness this facility is there: we all have our IT crises.
Some libraries are thriving: they have cafés attached and arrange all sorts of events. Sometimes, however, this can be to the detriment of one of the library’s traditional roles: that of providing a quiet space for reading. That is where I think my university library has it right. There are there types of zone: one geared for group work where open chatting is acceptable, another where some noise is tolerated and a third where absolute silence must be observed.
The library may have to change in order to survive. We must not lose sight, however, of its primary role. Note that Alan Gibbons’ activity is called “The Campaign for the Book”, not “The Campaign for the Library.” It’s just that one of the greatest threats to books as we know them is, of course, the closure of libraries.
Thank goodness, then, for the legal deposit libraries and their hoards of books. At my university, we have a constant battle to stop the library throwing out books – including some first editions. We have to sign to say we want them preserved. Surely a function of any library is to have that out of print book that only a few will want. I often go back to a really old source and find that what is suggested is surprisingly up to date and what I had thought were new ideas are in fact very old. We have to change our thinking here. The librarians constantly say there is no room so they must get rid of the books. Some books are priceless. We should see the problem from the other angle and create more space instead of getting rid of books.
So, why do we need libraries?
• To preserve books.
• To provide access to books that are difficult to find elsewhere.
• To offer books to people who cannot afford to buy them.
• To provide a public space for study.
• To provide a public access to the web.
• To support literature in other ways (and without the commercial restraints under which festivals and bookshops have to work).
Get involved. Support your local library and join Alan’s campaign.

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