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By Nicky Charlish

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We’re warned to never judge a book by its cover. But when we see one that has a design showing rows of books with authors such as Alan Bennett, Caitlin Moran, Stephen Fry, and Lionel Shriver on their spines, that is exactly what we are going to do. Because we will expect it to be full of good stuff, especially when it is accompanied by a quote from Bennett saying that a library is a haven. Will the content here live up to our expectations, or will we be disappointed?

In this book, published in support of the Reading Agency (an independent charity, funded by
the Arts Council, which specialises in helping libraries make more social impact) 23 writers tell us why public libraries matter.
They do so against a background of library cuts (and dumbed-down education—more of this later). And they not only make out a good case for libraries but also for reading itself—a wise move, given the dislike expressed in some quarters about ‘privileging’ the book over other sources of information.

Stephen Fry explains how his appetite for knowledge and reading enabled him to discover that great writers were to be ‘embraced and befriended’, and that reading also helped him to acknowledge the ‘dark blessing’ of his own sexuality. But he adds a warning—which he applies to gay youths but which is relevant across the board—that the internet age may result in people not seeking knowledge from the ‘magical municipal labyrinths’ of public libraries. Karin Slaughter writes of childhood reading that it gives children knowledge that there is a world outside themselves, and that reading helps people to develops cognitive skills: ‘It [reading] trains your mind to question what you are told… It’s why girls in developing countries have acid thrown in their faces going to school.’

For many poor children, libraries are havens where they can study or do their homework: libraries are a necessity. Val McDermid, coming from a working-class background, explains that she would not be a writer if it were not for libraries, and charts her own exploration of children’s books and crime fiction. Bali Rai reminds us that technology would not exist without books and libraries, whilst Lucy Mangan gives light-hearted expression to rules—such as surrendering mobile phones—for her imaginary library.

Despite all these good things springing from this book’s contributors, however, they have addressed only scantily—if at all—three critical issues concerning library usage. Julian Barnes writes of a dystopian future England, where all forms of information are available digitally, libraries suffer mass closures and it is proposed that the word ‘book’ be withdrawn from public discourse. But—unintentionally or otherwise—governments may have found a more effective means of stifling reading: the introduction of modern educational standards which have led—arguably—to the possible death of the reading habit.

Until, say, twenty years ago, many children from book-deprived backgrounds—and who were lucky enough to end up in either state grammars schools or the better comprehensives—had to read extensively in order to pass exacting exams before they could either to go university or get a job which needed a rigorous standard of education. In turn, they passed the reading habit on to their children. But in today’s ‘all must have prizes’ educational climate, no-one must be allowed to fail, so exams are passed with the click of a mouse or the tick of a box. Academic rigour is no longer required, and rigorous reading becomes a casualty.

‘Click-and-tick’ students are shocked when, arriving at ‘uni’, they find that they are expected to read complete books from cover to cover. And why shouldn’t they be? As far as they’re concerned, tertiary education is just another stepping-stone to getting a well-paid job, and nothing more. If they buckle-down to hard studying, they might become devoted readers and go on to enthuse their children about the written word, but there is no certainty of this. (Michael Gove’s educational reforms may, if implemented, encourage a higher standard of literacy, but he has decades of entrenched educational policies—with dogged defenders—to combat.)

The second issue is image. Reading is a solitary affair. So is surfing the Internet, but that has a cool, geeky glamour about it. But reading, on the other hand, summons-up that modern bogeyman, the loner. In the public imagination, loners loiter near playgrounds or yearn to shoot up the local shopping mall. Who—especially in their schooldays—wants to be branded thus? It can be said that the British—across all class barriers—have a problem with reading: terms such as ‘bookish’ and ‘bookworm’ are hardly terms of endearment. So it is unsurprising that library usage is seen as a snobbish, middle-class minority activity—and an easy target for cuts. Alan Bennett and Zadie Smith rant against Conservative or Coalition library closures but New Labour, under the leadership of a certain public school-educated prime minister, implemented its fair share of library cuts too.

The third issue is ideological. As Bennett reminds us, public libraries were seen as an expression of civic confidence and a belief in the value of education and reading. (His comment is also a useful reminder that, in Victorian times, trade helped pay for culture, and that snobbishness about it has no place among current advocates of the book.) Today, such an outlook is démodé in local government circles. Arguably, this is because many senior local government officials and library management team leaders attended university in the decades between, roughly, the 1960s and 1990s, and imbibed the politically-correct and relativist nostrums of that period. (Indeed, such views now inform the hierarchies—via the academy—of the churches, mainstream charities and cultural institutions, and the civil and public services: and they are also easier on the middle-class ‘progressive’ pocket than traditional tax-and-spend socialism.)

So it is unsurprising that such people happily spout the mantra that libraries ‘aren’t just about books’, regarding them instead as primarily vehicles of ‘social inclusion’. The library-as-village-hall concept is the result (although there is a case for libraries hosting events which may tangentially encourage reading). Meanwhile, library staffers who are less than enthusiastic about these developments learn to keep quiet: in the current climate of cuts, nobody wants to be the Katharine Birbalsingh of the public library service.

In conclusion, Miranda McKearney, Director of the Reading Agency, argues that libraries must evolve to survive. So must any organisation, but what form should this evolution take for libraries? She gives, as an example of good change, a visit to Rotherham library and its attractive decor but, whilst good furnishings have their place in library strategy, books are the unique selling point for libraries: the printed word must predominate, as Nicky Wire reminds us. Bella Bathurst quotes an enthusiastic school librarian about the excitement he felt whenever he gave a child a book he knew might change his or her life. And Caitlin Moran writes that a ‘library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft, and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination’.

These should be the visions that motivate library staff—and policy-makers at local and national level. Library staff must be given the time and training to fulfil them and, to do so, be freed from the burdens of target culture, team plans, over-complex corporate strategies, ever-changing initiatives, pointless surveys and measurable outcomes (Bathurst gives a darkly amusing example of the latter—a library book on suicide which was not returned).

Moran writes of closed libraries: ‘Kids—poor kids—will never know the fabulous, benign quirk of self-esteem of walking into “their” library and thinking: “I have read 60 per cent of the books in here. I am awesome.”’ But the same can also be said of the current downgrading of the proper purpose of libraries—by educated people who should know better—which shows a stunning combination of arrogance and ignorance. The descendants of the poor—who were meant to be the main beneficiaries of the public library service when it was first established—are the biggest losers. Meanwhile, the contributors to this book give valuable ammunition in the fight to help libraries maintain the power of the written word.


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