“I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure.”Virginia Woolf
Aptly enough, I got Ali Smith’s ‘Public Library and other stories’ out of the library. Initially put off by the hipsters on the cover, who cannot be in any way comfortable reading in that position for too long (or maybe their branch library has closed and they have no other option but to read in the street), it has been a joy. The stories are just the right length, and sandwiching them in are pieces from various people detailing what public libraries mean to them. The stories are infused with a love of words and literature, and while a book about libraries to celebrate and make people appreciate libraries is rather preaching to the choir in an age when over 1000 UK libraries have closed in the last seven years, I prefer that to the current trend in turning libraries into anything else but a place to get books. Yes, it’s great there’s wifi and DVDs, but if you have to install an Xbox, the battle is probably long lost. Less people read these days, just more competition and that’s the way it will stay.
The stories are an interesting mix, my favourite is ‘The Beholder’, about woman who upon entering depression after traumatic events, finds a flowering shrub growing out of her chest. She declines surgery and instead keeps it well watered and fed, and accepts the thorn damage of her shirts as a fact of life.
One of the pieces from individuals in-between the stories is from a librarian, who raises the issue of the Libraries Act of 1964, which states it is a statuary duty for each local authority to provide a comprehensive library service. I wonder how far that can stretch? What exactly does ‘comprehensive’ mean? Is a mobile library with the facility to order requested books comprehensive enough, and we could one day see physical buildings all close?
My solution would be to maximise the facilities offered to readers, and not try and compete with television and all the other modern distractions. Book clubs, including genre books clubs, as well as audio book clubs where people don’t have to have all read the same thing, but more of a meeting of people with similar tastes where there is tea and biscuits, I know, would go down well with my elderly people in sheltered housing. hell, it would go down well with me if there was somewhere booky and non-demanding and free to access to meet people and chat. Imagine moving to a new town, and being able to just rock up to the library on the right evening and meet all kinds of fellow readers over tea and custard creams.
I read the fantabulous new Birmingham library opened in 2013 was initially open for a whopping 73 hours a week to enable everyone to have access, but due to cost cutting measures in 2015 had their opening hours nearly halved, and the redundancies that brings. I can understand the problems local authorities face, having to cut social services, social care and even lollipop people (crossing guards, to non-British readers who may wonder what the hell a lollipop person does for the community, other than give out lollies) those things are very pressing, but I do worry for libraries. There’s probably always going to be a more desperate need in the world for the money spent on art and culture, but rather than accept that loss we should look at ways to make it all possible. Not one or the other.
And to close on a cheerier note, here is a picture of the Bodleian Library, as we know that’s not going anywhere. Just a shame we can’t all go in it. I bet they don’t have an Xbox.