Monday, 17 September 2012


As with most things, I'm rather behind the times.  It's been many months since most of the arguments to combat the closure of libraries in the UK have been made.  People have been impassioned.  Placards have been waved.  And so it's now, after all of that, that I've decided to blog about it.

Having said that I'm behind the times, like most classicists, I can be surprisingly modern.  I bought a digital camera when they were still very rare (one of those Sony machines which stored the data on 3.5" floppy disk!  When they still measured things in imperial...), I have not one, but two Raspberry Pis and, if I had my wish, a flat screen television would rise up from the foot of my bed (I said I was modern, not that I have taste).

Why then would the disappearance of libraries matter to me?  The great meta-data cloud of the internet can provide us with, in some cases, a lot more information than can be gleaned in a wood pulp collection, and, what's more, in a fraction of the time.  Books sold on the internet are relatively cheap and easily found.  As much as I miss the excitement and sensual pleasure of browsing in a tiny book shop, I don't mourn the passing of these institutions in the same way.

But that's because they weren't institutions, they were businesses.  One of the many wonderful things about a library is that profit really should not enter into its ethos.  I think that this is one of the reasons that they have fallen foul of the twenty-first century.  'Profit as worth' is a concept which has trampled on places like these.

What then can we get from a non-profit space?  Everything else!  And do you know how I know this?  Because of my dreams...

I have nightmares every night.  It's to do with my body reacting to pain.  Some nights they're not too bad, others they're awful.  But they are usually very interesting and vivid.  I have many repeated themes that would, no doubt, fascinate any budding psychotherapist.  But let us concentrate on the dream image of the library.

In my sleepy brain, a library can house almost anything - violent struggles (blood on the crinkled spines), intrigues (whispered conversations behind the shelves), quests (the rows and rows of books leading on for miles and miles) leave it there in case I give too much away and sentence myself to a prolonged period of incarceration and therapy.

There is a very good reason why my brain can site so many different genres of action in one space.  A library can be a huge number of things.  It is an open, public space.  It does not discriminate on lines of gender, age, ability, literacy or even taste (you should have seen the number of x-files "novels" I borrowed as a kid).  People can gather for events (book readings, IT courses etc) and there are facilities entirely apart from the bound pages (in our library there were computers, a photocopier and spaces at which one could work).

When I was talking to Deb about this, she very sensibly pointed out that spaces of congregation were disappearing - fewer people go to church and the associated meeting groups.  Libraries worked in a similar way.  We as a species are bettered by being around a wide group of individuals.  We learn to tolerate and understand the true meaning of 'diversity' outside of political spiel.  It also gives a place which you don't necessarily need to drive to.  There's a reason why there were always a good number of pensioners wafting around the shelves.  It's a cheap, warm and safe venue.

And although I'm an advocate of actually owning books (if you buy enough of them, they act like a second layer of insulation on the walls of your dwelling), there are many advantages to being able to borrow them for free.  I developed much of my taste for fantasy and science-fiction literature through the dedicated shelf of my local library.  And I did this at a time when I desperately needed an otherworld to disappear into.  Escapism, though, was just one of the gifts given to me.

I remember as a child my entire primary school class going to the library to become members.  As cultish as that sounds, it was a rite of passage of which I heartily approve.  We all got our library card which we had to keep safe (it was made of porous cardboard too, not some kind of indestructible plastic.  If we wanted to keep borrowing books, we had to look after that thing!).  With the card we were able to take out our first book - and we did, the entire class.  I wish I could say that I remember which book I got out.  I only know that it was a reference book and so was probably about dinosaurs.

When studying for my A-levels via distance learning, I went to the library to study.  There was absolutely no practical reason to do this - I had all the information I needed in my course folder and I was comfortable working in my bedroom/study.  But I knew that studying in a library was something that people did.  So I travelled to the library on my mobility scooter, set myself up at a desk, and did my best to work for however long I could stand it (probably an hour).  I think in the handful of times I did this I read about twenty A4 pages and wrote less than five hundred words.  It was not energy efficient.  But I have that experience - sat at the shiny desk, trying my best to concentrate in this environment that was entirely shared.  It is a memory which makes me smile.

And then there's the issue of choice.  You can walk into a library and chose any book you want.  True, you have to make it past the judging eyes of the librarian ("Ground Zero by Kevin J. Anderson AGAIN?") but if you can cope with that, then you have the option to try everything with absolutely no monetary risk.  And so this place which you don't have to travel far to visit gives you access to a vast geography of knowledge and taste.  It really can open up eyes to new ideas.  And that's something we really need - new ideas and greater scope.  And we need that to be based in a space which is free from the tyranny of profit based worth.

So save the libraries!  If there are any left by now...