Tuesday 30 November 2010

In Praise Of UK Public Libraries

Settle down children, pop in a boiled sweet and Granddad will tell you a tale of yesteryear, of a time when Britain ruled the waves and large parts of the Midlands were marked on maps as "here be dragons".  This is a time when local authorities spent money on local people rather than on massively-overpaid chief executives, when leisure facilities received more funding than the council employee who ran them, a time when the only thing that stopped a young whippersnapper accessing free books was a touch of scurvy and the fact that it was his brother's day for the shoes ...

In 1849 William Ewart introduced a Public Libraries Bill to the Commons. Despite opposition from Conservatives, who thought that it would mean the upper and middle classes paying to educate the poor  (and in the process making the oiks uppity and difficult to control) the bill eventually became law, though it was almost emasculated by the alterations forced on it. Most noticeable was the halfpenny rate restriction on funding (and that money couldn't be used to buy books!). If it hadn't been for several wealthy philanthropists, most notably Andrew Carnegie, putting up money for buildings and books, the new library movement could have been stillborn.  PS Carnegie's worth a read-up himself, the closest thing to a good capitalist that the 19th century produced.

Andrew Carnegie, philanthropist and public library benefactor
Andrew Carnegie with a library copy of Valley Of The Dolls

Cutting the history lesson short, matters improved and public funding increased so that soon major towns and cities all had public lending libraries. Most were staffed by pallid men in nylon shirts (yes, even in 1863), scowling women of a certain age in cardigans and horn-rimmed specs and plump young women who wanted to be somewhere else.  The other thing that these libraries had in common was books. Hundreds and thousands of the buggers. Big books, little books, books for kids and books for grown-ups. Some even had books for odd people but you had to ask for those, I'm told, and the horn-rimmed glasses stopped me ever trying that.

As I mentioned in my first blog, I was a voracious reader as a child. Imagine then stepping into one of these cavernous buildings, going through the sacred process of registering and getting my first Library Card  (and yes, it should be be capitalised). Guided to the children's section, let loose on a selection of books that would amaze and horrify today's punters.  Biggles and Blyton, Treasure Island and Tom Sawyer, people marooned on desert islands, whether with treasure or coral and boys only or with the family and geology unspecified, a short ride on the L3 bus took me to worlds hitherto unimagined.

Four books only, impossible! I didn't care if they were too big and too heavy -- Mum could carry them :) Asking a small child to choose between all those possibilities was like setting me loose amongst Woolies Pick 'n' Mix but making me wear mittens. Yet there was another, untold, benefit of these temples to the written word. Even at a very tender age I was learning to evaluate and make a choice, learning to use my own judgement -- with the hideous penalty of having garbage to read for a week or two if I got it wrong.

As I grew older, libraries developed.  LPs became available in the more avant garde, then CDs and videos. Reference libraries began and provided valuable sources for homework and, note this all you local government hobgoblins, places for children to do homework away from all distractions. Eventually computers arrived and I'm proud to say I had a small part in helping popularise that development in libraries on Merseyside. In the early days of the internet we saw anyone from grannies to goth kids tentatively approaching and soon surfing merrily.  People who'd come in for books found a new facility, people who'd come in for the new facility often found books. Win, win, win.

Of course, that last triumph was funded by Europe, the ERDF. Already  the powers that be were dipping into the pot. Buy less copies of each book. Buy less books and then only the popular ones. No adventure, nothing even vaguely unusual.  Forty kids after one reference work. Tough. What else can we cut? Staffing and running costs.  Shorter opening hours, less evenings, no Saturdays. Deskill the staff -- we don't need trained librarians to stamp books.

And as the service gets worse, so the number of users drops and the range decreases. Working people don't go to the library? No, because our working hours correspond exactly with opening hours. Quality of books? Dick Francis and Barbara Bloody Cartland - yes, if you limit availability to pensioners and don't offer much of a choice anyway.

Where were we? Ah yes. Settled comfortably, Worthers in gob. "Once upon a time there were big buildings called Libraries ..."

What can we do? Patronise your local library -- get up on a Saturday morning! Complain about cuts to MPs and councillors. Question their support for library services. Make it an election issue. Complain to local media. If we just moan quietly to ourselves then the easy targets stay easy.

Mark Haddon: "Libraries are the NHS for the mind, one of the very few places where we are all equal, a place where we can all read and learn and get involved in our community institutions of which we should be hugely proud, and they are being destroyed to save a banker’s bonus."

Facebook campaign by The Bookseller

An excellent blog on the finances of public libraries

Ian Anstice, who is a librarian, blogs on public libraries. Includes call to action and suggestions for responses.

Guardian piece on Labour government review of public libraries (March 2010)

Excellent piece by Terence Blacker on Tory depredations. Newer piece (aug 2012) in in the Independent but don't read the comments - depressing.

Funny stunt, but a tinge of sadness: To prevent a threatened closure, Library gets rid of all of its books

In Praise Of UK Public Libraries
Phil Bradley's Tweets Tag Cloud

Children's books referred to above: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Treasure Island The Coral Island The Swiss Family Robinson


Ian Anstice said...

Full list of libraries under threat (with map) at http://publiclibrariesnews.blogspot.com/. It's not fun reading.

Paul said...

Miserable reading indeed. Other readers, please visit that blog -- I said above "make a noise" -- Ian shows how to direct that noise. Public libraries are too valuable to lose.

Unknown said...

Like you, I grew up loving the library. I lived on a military base in the US and the library they provided was easily accessible to us kids. I remember the first time I went into the building and checked out a book--yes, only one book. I was amazed that I got to keep it for 14 days! I promptly went and read the entire book--it was, after all, a child's book. Oh, did I mention that I was only 7 years old? Then I realized that I only got one book and I thought I HAD to keep it for the entire check-out time. I was so very sad. Happily my mom told me I could take it back early and get another one (or two).

I grew up loving books and the library. In fact, the best job I ever had was working in the fiction department of my local library.

Nice post. Thanks for the memories.

Jake said...

Few months ago went into library the Frome library and looked at the suggestions book.

"we want more tyme on the computers" all over it.

One guy said, "this is a library not an IT centre"

If they expect people to get into reading instead of being book fascists they should make them more accessible. The first step would be to have some decent novels on display. Books are becoming so middle class these days unless you count Jordan's biography!

Paul said...

Hi Jake, problem is people want books they've seen in supermarkets or on Richard and Judy, or there's a few "worthy" books bought. WE need more money for a wider range of books, including novels of all sorts.

THanks for the comment, Paul

Flynn the Cat said...

As a librarian I thoroughly approve of getting people into libraries ;D

Just dropped by to leave this link

Virginia Allain said...

Libraries are such a treasure for a community. I feel the same way you do about them.
As a library director, I scrambled for grant funds to make up for government neglect. After I retired, I heard horror stories from the staff on cuts to hours and to the budget.

virginiaallain said...

It does become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Cut the services and limit the books, because people won't use them. Of course, without evening and weekend hours and without a decent collection, what they predicted does happen. Very sad.

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