Terry Deary’s views on public libraries made alarming reading this week. Others have replied far more cogently than I could, so if you want a proper response, Julia Donaldson’s article in the Guardian is a good place to start.
Still, if Deary’s comments re-ignite the debate about public libraries, it won’t be a bad thing. We need to continue that debate while there is still a service to discuss. What we’re currently suffering is a haphazard dismantling of a fragmented service as small local battles are fought – and often lost – all over the country.
I worked in a public library for twelve years. I’ve seen the good that libraries do. If you can afford to buy all your books and have internet access, maybe you don’t need to go to one, but for goodness’ sake, why wouldn’t you? Libraries have far more books than most of us could ever afford, they’re (usually) warm, they’re friendly and safe, and they’re full of people who love to read! What’s not to like? (And yes, I know bookshops used to offer most of this. If you still have one that does, you’re very lucky.)
Conversely if you have no money of your own to buy reading material – and many people, especially children, haven’t – where else can you go? Even 50p at a charity shop is beyond some budgets. “The Internet!” is not an answer if you’re six years old, you have several brothers and sisters and everybody wants the computer at once.
Nobody’s saying the Library service doesn’t need to change in the light of the current upheaval in the book trade. But we only got to where we are by a long struggle. Abandoning all that hard-won ground now would be a dreadful mistake.
A while ago I did some digging around to find out the story of just one local library in my area. Some of the arguments may sound familiar:
The Public Libraries Act gives boroughs the power to open free public libraries
(No rush, as you see) – a letter in the local paper gives twenty reasons why a library would be a Good Thing, including, “Because for young people of both sexes a Public Library affords some place to which they can go, instead of loitering aimlessly about the public streets.”
The Council vote against a Public Library, despite popular support which claims that, “The poor people here are very fond of reading,” and, “The people of this town… have been unfairly handicapped in the pursuit of knowledge by the absence of such an institution.”
The local papers are divided:
“The speeches of the members proved… that many of them know nothing at all about the question.”
“The decision was a wise one… while there were so many costly necessities, in the shape of loans for drainage, water supply and street improvements looming.”
“The public will always clamour for anything they can see a chance of getting for nothing.”
Mr Carnegie (founder of the Carnegie Trust) offers £3000 towards the cost of a library. This sparks a public meeting, at which -
“Mr Pile said they should put every opportunity of improvement in the way of the young men of the town.”
“Mr Dadds said that public libraries were a failure nearly everywhere.”
“What did they read in these libraries?”
“Rubbish!” came the reply.
(There may be something in this. For a fee, the local subscription libraries were offering titles like, “Miranda of the Balcony,” “Maid with the Goggles,” “Further Adventures of Captain Kettle,” “Iris the Avenger,” and “Mrs Erricker’s Reputation”.)
The Great War interrupts everything,
There is a hold-up acquiring the land. The Carnegie Trustees want to see some action.
A local campaigner points out that “no one with a leaning towards culture would oppose a free library” and finally…
Hooray! The Library opens, after forty-one years of campaigning.
It’s still open now.
Long may it remain.