Saturday, 1 October 2016

In Defence of Libraries


The following is the full version of my letter published in the Morley Observer, in reply to a correspondent who wrote in support of threatened library closures.  He claimed that we should waste no time trying to keep libraries open since "we have the internet now," and that if we relied on libraries our society will fall behind.  "I have not set foot in a library for over twenty years," he revealed, and explained that whenever he wants to read a book he simply buys it on Amazon.  I am pleased to say that the paper then published a whole host of letters arguing the opposing case - demonstrating the strong public feeling in defence of libraries.

THE EXTENDED VERSION OF MY LETTER:

How disappointing to read Mr Nick Keer's letter (21/09/16) calling for library closures because he has not used a library in over twenty years and can buy books on Amazon. For me, this letter typifies the reductive, self-centred cynicism that has come to define our ignorant, click-bait age where "Get me what I want now!" and "If I don't like it, ban it," are the prevailing mentalities. I take issue with Mr Keer's argument, and would like to explain to him precisely why.





First of all, Mr Keer, if you have not been inside a library for two decades (which you proclaim as if it were something to be proud of), how can you have any idea of the service you are missing, and of which you would happily deprive countless others?  Moreover, just because you have chosen to avoid them, why should others be robbed of the chance of visiting? I have not made it to Blackpool for over twenty years, do you suggest we cordon that off as well?
To implement your wish of closure, existing libraries would have to be emptied, to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds' worth of waste - and assuming your wish to see them closed extends to every library in the world (and your letter gives no suggestion it does not) would be nothing short of an international Futurist Revolution as reckless as the destruction of all schools. Your suggestion that, as you can find all you need on Amazon, we should dispense with a millennia-old practice of storing books in libraries, beggars belief, but is typical of the black-and-white, either-or, binary thinking increasingly taking hold of our society. All too often - in culture, in politics, in major decisions and in everyday life - we are expected or forced to choose between two stark alternatives, when so often the key to making good choices, and to embracing the multiplicity of a full and diverse world, is knowing when and how to bring together the positive aspects of different things, not to throw all our eggs in one basket and consign the rest to oblivion. Why force a choice between the internet and libraries?  Why not use both?  And what about those who cannot afford to buy books?  As the American writer and environmentalist Anne Herbert memorably puts it, "Libraries will get you through times with no money better than money will get you through times with no libraries."  What's more, the public library system actually offers far more flexibility and choice than online buying - many's the time I have been unable to find rare or out-of-print books online - and when I have they have often been unaffordable - only to discover that they can be ordered (often free of charge) at the library. 




 Something else you will not find on Amazon is the friendly advice of knowledgeable staff - I would far rather a recommendation or a helping hand with research from a dedicated, experienced library staff member than a whole stack of badly written, often biased Amazon "reviews". 




While we are on the subject of staff, I might point out that libraries remain a means of employment for many people - and places where innumerable others can and do go for help in gaining work, via the many jobseekers' advice and IT courses and sessions offered, but considering your "Its no use to me so scrap it" attitude I expect this will cut little ice.

There are a great many benefits to be found from library use, which one cannot gain on Amazon.  When, Mr Keer, was the last time you saw an exhibition by local artists on Amazon?  When was the last time Amazon provided space for up-and-coming writers to talk about, discuss, and even sell their work in front of live audiences?  Did you ever go to a coffee morning to raise funds for cancer charities or elderly care "on Amazon"?  Libraries provide all of these things - and a whole lot more. I have attended, facilitated and hosted dozens of literary and performance based events, children's activities, talks and readings - not on Amazon, but in the welcoming environment of public libraries. I have sat and listened to expert speakers from the worlds of science, history and art, watched films and visual presentations, seen live drama, listened to live music, attended craft workshops, eaten new kinds of food and met fascinating people whose paths would never have crossed mine if not for libraries, as well as discovering many writers and having the honour seeing my own work appear on library shelves.






Many famous authors (including those whose books you buy on Amazon) have found libraries to be sources of inspiration - some would never have become writers at all if they had not used libraries as children. 




As readers, we are likely to encounter a wider range of books than if we depended purely on our own purchasing preferences.  With a dazzlingly wide range of free borrowing (or even the chance to just leaf through for a few minutes here and there), I have found myself delving into ideas, philosophies and visions totally contrary to my own - sometimes reaffirming my initial viewpoint and simply providing interesting insights into ways of life or schools of thought, at other times enabling me to change or adapt my thinking in enlightened ways, or just giving me a bit of a laugh or a smile at otherwise difficult times.  What price can be put on this?  



Libraries bring disparate people together.  They provide locations for community festival events, are important centres for regular children's activities (what could be more important than assisting the development and imaginations of the next generation?), trusted locations for community groups and meetings of senior citizens, and play a vital role in helping the vulnerable - I have worked in Mental Health and Social care, and have personally witnessed the ways in which some of the most marginalized people have gained in confidence, language and communication skills, thanks to regular library visits.  I have seen how youngsters have enjoyed craft groups, lego clubs, singing sessions and the chance to explore a multitude of books transporting them from everyday reality. I have known children from disturbed or underprivileged backgrounds learn new skills and find unexpected fun and creativity, adults with learning disabilities learn to read and write, the blind and visually impaired make use of books on cd, braille and specially-tailored IT facilities. 





Libraries are fun, emancipating places, and are also of great value educationally.  School classes use libraries, and in this way introduce many youngsters to the service who would, due to unstable or neglectful upbringings, never venture within if reliant only on their parents.



 I have met people studying for degrees for whom the library was invaluable - living in crowded shared accommodation or dysfunctional families, it was the only place they could find sufficient peace and quiet to sit and study. To recount the experience of the great American author Ray Bradbury: "When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years." 
I have seen charities and local businesses boost their chances of success thanks to library advertising and promotion, collaborative projects with local schools, academics making use of priceless local history materials (audiovisual resources, archive publications, 500 year old documents and maps) and more.  I have seen the absolute wealth of archived documents such as Hansard (every volume) , Government White Papers, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of published newspapers and magazines, professional journals, and literature of interest to people with disabilities, financial problems and complex needs, as well as using local libraries for research in many of my own pursuits - from locating obscure poetry to discovering facts about my own family history. You just can't do all that on Amazon, Mr Keer.
Even assuming that you have all your current needs met on the internet, can you be sure that you will never find yourself in need of IT facilities you do not possess?  What will you do if your printer runs out of ink and you need to print an urgent document? To scan or fax important legal information at short notice? All of this can be done in libraries, which offer a profusion of other computer-based services, such as IT learning from the most basic level, to free use of brilliant resources such as international newspapers, Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Oxford English Dictionary Online, Naxos Music, Ancestry.com and many other websites, as well as a wide range of official procedures such as registering to vote.  But I suspect you, Mr Keer, can get all of this on Amazon?

A library is a vital part of any community and helps to give a place its heart.  When I move to or even visit a new town or city, one of the first places I look for is the library. It is part of the fundamental identity of any area, a place where safety and security are guaranteed and, for some, one of the only - in some cases the only - outlet for meeting and talking to other people. It is also part of the fabric of our country's history - public libraries were once memorably described to me by a Sudanese friend as the single best invention of the Western World.



The Public Libraries Act of 1850 (which I am sure you know all about, being an expert on libraries) was a pioneering piece of legislation that served to educate future generations, but was vehemently opposed by regressive voices whose negativity I am afraid to say you echo.  The provisions of the Act were a force for empowerment and the enlargement of learning, so it is hardly surprising that many in the "old guard" of our legislative institutions tried to fight it.  Such attitudes persist, and have found an assumed legitimacy in our own uncertain times. Vital public services are under threat, with library closures a sign of the shrinking value placed by our political authorities on culture, heritage and learning. Some areas have been left all the poorer for the closures of their  libraries, with children and the infirm left unable to visit alternative branches due to busy roads or dangerous streets. It is a wonder that any libraries at all have survived the last six years of Tory cuts, and as the Labour Party's leadership election result has effectively condemned it to remain in Opposition for at least the next ten years, then in the absence of a sustained resurgence from the Liberal Democrats or any other progressive party, the dangers for libraries look set to continue.  It is undeniable that providing libraries does cost money - but as the US journalist Walter Cronkite once observed, "Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation."
These dark days of "if it doesn't make a profit, cut it" are exactly when we should be focused most on protecting libraries for the good of one another, whether you use them personally or not.  Otherwise, given the negative, narrow outlook of the times, we may well wake up one day and find that people like you, Mr Keer, have got your wish - and where will the cultural destruction end, and at what cost to the social, cultural and intellectual future of our country? "First they came for the libraries, but I got all I wanted on Amazon and didn't use libraries, so I did nothing..."

I must admit, when I began writing this reply, my mood was combative, and I little expected it would win you round to any sort of common ground.  However, focusing on all the many wonderful things libraries have brought into our communities has, in fact, moved me to realize what a sadly lacking life you and others, in your self-imposed library exile, must have led these twenty years. I therefore throw down the gauntlet to you, Nick Keer, and instead of ending impolitely, or trying to score any further points, I invite you - I urge you - to swallow your pride, overcome your fear of these valuable, open, free, liberating places, and take the plunge - step over the threshold after twenty years of tragic absence, and walk into your local library, or any library, and find out what you have been missing.  You never know, Nick, with an open mind and a will to try new things, you may even enjoy it.

Indeed, you might just find that it could change your life.

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