The debate raged fiercely. My choice was actually “library”. Call me old-fashioned, but a library is what a library is. It should be a place where we can go to find both inspiration and information, but above all it should be a place which celebrates reading and literature.
So although I support the laudable aims of Libraries Week, which is happening until Saturday, I am not sure I feel comfortable with running away with the idea that libraries can be all things to all peopleIt says here – on the Libraries Week website – that the event is “a chance to discover the range of things you can do at your library, from play and learning for children, to managing your health, to accessing wifi and games, to finding a job, a hobby or a starting a business”.
Far be it from me to criticise libraries for responding to the needs of people like this. Heaven knows, the services libraries provide are much-needed; for countless people in the UK, the nearest library is the only place where they can access the internet, despite the fact that the Government and public services seem to think that we’re all on superfast broadband at home and in possession of the technical expertise of Bill Gates.
I know, too, that libraries are desperate to prove their worth to both central government and local councils; reports suggest that since 2010, more than 300 libraries have closed. Many are fighting for survival. No wonder they want to shout about what they do. It’s all about proving their worth to the wider public.
You could call this state of affairs a legacy of former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Big Society”, the notion that communities would pull together to provide vital services instead of relying on the state. Although almost 8,000 jobs in libraries have been lost over the past seven years, more than 15,000 volunteers have been recruited. That’s because people care about libraries. They don’t want to lose them.
However, there is a danger that this idea of libraries, as a one-stop shop for sorting out everything from your photocopying to registering to pay your tax, is clouding the notion that reading is enjoyable, books are the key to other worlds and that learning for the sake of learning should be celebrated.
I sound like a proper old rose-tinted romantic, don’t I? Well, that might be the case but at least I’m in good company. Leeds-born author, playwright and broadcaster Alan Bennett has been talking about libraries too, and he knows a lot more about them than me. Needless to say, he thinks that libraries are a vital community service and should be publicly-funded.
He also says that libraries not only help us to appreciate the joy of reading, they are also indispensable places to nurture people’s thoughts: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something ... a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things, which you had thought special and particular to you. In the multiplication of such moments libraries and librarians are indispensable.”
It’s worth repeating Bennett’s words in full. In the hurly-burly of modern life, when we rarely have time to take a moment to allow our mind to wander, how often do we think about actually thinking? A library can offer a place to do just that.
Whenever the issue of libraries is raised, those who would preside over cutbacks and closures always point out the fact that actually borrowing books is on an irreversible decline.
The latest figures, published in 2016 by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, suggest that in the previous two years borrowing from public libraries had dropped in almost every area of England.
In Doncaster, for instance, there were 628,709 book “issues” in 2014, compared with 1.2m two years earlier. It’s not just closures which are causing this; it’s also the growth of e-books, and changing social habits. We can’t halt progress, but we should remember that it’s wrong to measure a library in the same terms as a retail repository.
Bennett also brings out a wider truth. He spoke of his time at Oxford University on a full grant, when he enjoyed every library that Oxford had to offer, safe in the knowledge that his education was being paid for.
For Bennett, this was a way out of poverty and towards the promise of a better life. When was the last time you felt “nurtured” by the Government, and the state in general? Harassed, harangued and coerced perhaps, but nurtured?
We have lost that ability to do more than survive day to day, jumping through the hoops in our path. Perhaps it’s time we all regarded libraries as more than places to find information, we need to cherish them as temples of contemplation and inspiration.