In April last year I wrote a post in praise of libraries, aware that public libraries would be top of the list of things to cut come the budget reductions. Sure enough, a whole raft of libraries face closure up and down the country, as councils see their budgets squeezed.
The blog Public Library News has been tracking the proposed closures, and has mapped them here. The number of them is pretty staggering – over 400 so far. By the time the budget cuts are through, we may have lost one of Britain’s great national institutions – a network of public libraries that has provided literature and information to every citizen, free of charge.
There have been libraries for thousands of years, and public ones for centuries. It was the invention of the novel that really drove the creation of public lending libraries, although the early ones required a subscription. It was the ‘rational recreation’ movement that created the public libraries. This was a movement to encourage the working classes to use their leisure time as a social good. Among the many social innovations of the era were the codifying of the rules of football, and the creation of public parks and museums.
Reading was considered a social good, and certainly beat the drinking that the working classes would be engaging in otherwise, presumably, so the Public Libraries Act of 1850 allowed councils to open free lending libraries. Indeed, campaigners hoped that “the establishment of parish libraries and district reading rooms, and popular lectures on subjects both entertaining and instructive to the community might draw off a number of those who now frequent public houses for the sole enjoyment they afford.” Whether or not libraries genuinely dented Briton’s appreciation of ale and gin is up for debate, but the libraries themselves were certainly succesful. There is an architectural legacy that we enjoy to this day, of grand, almost palatial temples to learning, the spacious pillared halls and marble floors of some of our central libraries. It’s hard to imagine being allowed into them now, let alone as a dirty 19th century factory labourer.
Times have changed of course, books are cheaper, and there are plenty of alternative ways of amusing ourselves. The internet has made information much more available. Libraries are not well used, and they are expensive to run, but they remain important public spaces, especially for those on the margins of society. Mothers take their children to readings in the children’s sections. One in five people in Britain does not have the internet at home, and many of them use the library, where it is free. Many teenagers meet at libraries to study or work on joint projects.
If your library is as good as mine, it also has a programme of talks and courses, and Luton’s even has afternoon film screenings, lectures from authors and touring comedians. Like many things that are public goods, the BBC, the Post Office, our national forests, we may not know what we have until it is gone. Closing libraries is also, ironically, completely against the principles of the current government. As one newspaper editorial put it recently:
Libraries matter because they are portals of imagination, learning and information, and thus represent values that the coalition government claims to hold dear. What is the Big Society if it does not encompass a public library in which children, regardless of the means of their homes, can have their horizons widened? What do fairness, social mobility and “we’re all in it together” mean unless everyone can gain free entry to the world of knowledge?
Many people don’t use their local libraries, but those that do are desperate to try and save them. Last week a library near me in Milton Keynes was struck by a rather creative campaign, when locals managed to check out every single book on the shelves in protest. Save Doncaster Libraries has been hosting ‘read-ins’, with dozens of people descending on a public space at once, just to read quietly.