Of the People: why we still need public libraries

I have a library. It’s the banner of this blog. According to my boss, the rainbow was impressive enough that it informed his decision to hire me. It grew with me, from a single bookcase with David Almond in the top left and Jacqueline Wilson in the bottom right, into the five-case monstrosity that almost had to be winched into my new house through the first-floor windows.


The living room had limited floor space when we moved in…

For me, it was a library because it had a lot of books, but during my school years it also became a lending library. Friends, family and even secondary school English teachers would borrow and return, often with the aid of the Excel spreadsheet catalogue. A friend even made me library cards once. On the whole, my most battered books have often been not the ones that I read the most, but the ones that were most often passed between fourteen-year-old bookworms.

Those bookworms will probably remember one of my library’s rules, perhaps so obvious it didn’t need listing on the membership card: USE A BOOKMARK. Bookmarks are to me what coasters are to Monica from Friends. I wasn’t a bookmark snob – with each loan I actually provided paint-shade sample cards, conveniently and prettily bookmark-shaped, which I picked up free from Homebase. This is now known as Building Your Brand. It also stopped library members from leaving their books open and face down in a tent shape, which distressed me greatly.


Dog-eared corners, wrinkly spines – such was the stuff of my nightmares. I personally perfected the art of flattening one half of the book with my thumb, to avoid the dreaded Spine Crack. Yes, this hurts. Yes, it makes it hard to read small print at the start of each line.

I’m no longer so fussy about keeping my books in perfect condition – as I said, the wear and tear is part of their history. I’ll always know that Rita Murphy’s Black Angels (2001) has no cover because I dropped it in the swimming pool on holiday, and that there’s a loose leaf of pages towards the end of The Amber Spyglass (2000) because I’ll read that book again and again until I die. Besides, working in bookselling and now publishing has taught me that there’s rarely such a thing as a perfect-condition book – many copies even arrive scuffed when they’re sent to our offices literally off the press. In my library’s heyday, though, I cared a lot. My mother has been so scarred by my strict adolescent self that even today she carries around books I lend her in Ziploc bags. (No exaggeration.) So here’s the question: why did I still send these pristine treasures out into the world of undersized Nike bags and smelly lockers?

I believe in the power of libraries. In Jorge Luis Borges’ famous short story, The Library of Babel (trans. 1962), the library in question is more or less the universe – an essentially infinite collection of every possible book, inhabited by scholars who roam its halls searching for meaning. A lesser known story by Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library (trans. 2014), describes a nightmarish prison library, whose custodian forces a young boy to read an entire book, in order to then eat his brains and absorb the knowledge. In a way, these two tales represent the two things that libraries can be: the cradle of the world’s knowledge, open to all, or the site of selective control of that resource, knowledge – resulting in power imbalances and social inequality. As a fellow inmate of Murakami’s horror library remarks,

“If all they did was lend out knowledge for free, what would the pay off be for them?”

Unfortunately, UK national and local governments have started asking themselves this question. For the last decade or so, and especially since the start of ‘austerity’ under the Conservatives, the state has been questioning the value of the public library – open to all and free to use. By doing this, the UK risks undoing a tradition that dates back to Ancient Rome. According to Matthew Battles, Harvard librarian and author of Library: An Unquiet History (2003), the famed and lost library of Alexandria, one of the wonders of the ancient world, had no reading rooms – it was a hub for established Greek and Egyptian scholars, and a storehouse for texts confiscated by the ruling Ptolemaic dynasty. In other words, the library monopolised knowledge for the benefit of those with pre-existing access to it, and of those in power. The West had to wait for Julius Caesar to found the first public library. From the time of his successor, Augustus, emperors all built public libraries, much like US presidents today. State-built public baths also often included libraries – accessible to all. If you thought the tradition of dropping a book in the bath started with you, think again.

Libraries have always been connected with democracy and republican ideas – res publica simply means a thing or matter of and for the people. In Britain, the 19th-century Chartist movement fought for universal male suffrage, and the abolition of laws requiring men to own property in order to stand for parliament. The Chartists set up cooperative lending libraries which, unlike the existing civil subscription libraries, charged no fee. Philosopher John Stuart Mill approved: “by greater access to information, all people could be trained in reason’s principles”. Offering free education would create better citizens.

Whether or not they cared about being good citizens, ordinary people throughout history have shared the Chartists’ hunger for the empowering knowledge that comes from access to libraries. Fans of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2005), a beautiful novel depicting a young girl who both steals and hides books in Nazi Germany, may appreciate Battles’ true account of an African-American in the racially segregated South who overcame the laws denying him a library card by borrowing that of a sympathetic white man, who allowed him to pose as his servant picking up books on his behalf. For as long as those in power have tried to limit and control who has access to books, individuals and communities have fought to get them back. Battles – whose 200-page world history really is an enjoyable read – also explores the story of the Vilna ghetto library; thanks to the efforts of librarian Herman Kruk and other Jews confined to the ghetto, 100,000 books were able to circulate.

That’s an exceptional example of the human need for reading matter, but in England in 2016, I find ‘civilian’ libraries all over the place. The North London suburbs where I live are home to these postbox-style Little Free Libraries, typically set up at the end of a front garden:

little free library

Further into town, some Tube stations operate a similar ‘take one, leave one’ scheme:


My personal favourite, though, comes from outside the city. When visiting my good friend Rowan (whose fantastic illustrated blog is here) in the charming village of Llangrove, I found this phone box library. They may have no shops and only one pub, but they still need to read:


These little glimpses of a Great British Book Club always cheer me. But there’s a problem with leaving the provision of library services down to private civilian initiatives: they’re not enough. They’re not enough, because everyone must have access to a library.

WARNING: personal digression follows. I learnt to read early, and to read fast. Though the hoarding of birthday and Christmas book tokens and the earning of reward trips to Waterstone’s let me build up my personal library, it took a long time before those occasional treats were an adequate supply for my demand. I’d take ten books out from Friern Barnet Library (the weekly maximum), and often top these up by borrowing from other libraries in the borough and beyond. Without this opportunity to read for free, I wouldn’t have fulfilled my reading potential. I wouldn’t have done so well at school. I wouldn’t have had the ‘well-read’ quality that got me into a top university. I probably wouldn’t be making my living reading and editing.


Maximum lending would last me about two days in school holidays (2000)

The 2015 nationwide library figures show that the crucial importance of access to a library in these early years has been unchanged by the arrival of Amazon prices and children with iPads: five of the ten most borrowed authors from UK libraries were writers of children’s books, both novelists like Jacqueline Wilson and picture-book authors like Julia Donaldson. Barnet libraries such as East Finchley – threatened with closure – are reporting increases in child borrowing of 18% over the last five years. As for older children, the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance for sixth-formers, the rise in tuition fees and the requirement that everyone remain in education until 18 means that free access to books will matter for more pupils now than ever before.

Barnet has faced some of the most shocking cuts to local authority and library funding – to the point that it’s become a byword for library cuts in the national media. My very own library, Friern Barnet, was closed by the council in 2012, against vocal and desperate protests, strongly supported by the Labour councillors and MEP Andrew Dismore, which ended in local people squatting in the library to run it themselves on a volunteer basis. Ultimately, the council gave up opposing this, and those dedicated locals took over the officially endorsed Friern Barnet Community Library. By 2015, ironically, Barnet Council began using the example of Friern Barnet to justify both completed and planned closures of several more libraries. The council, backed by the central government, is choosing to assume that willing and able volunteers can replace paid civil servants wherever the state withdraws its support.


Friern Barnet Library, which opened in 1934


There are those who, like me growing up, lacked the privilege of regular book-buying. But libraries are an essential service to many other, even more needy people. They offer a free indoor space for pre-school and older children to play and learn together; for those who can’t afford printers and photocopiers; for those without home access to the Internet, or a limited understanding of computers – both required to access many further government services, and to compete in today’s job market; for those who need large-print or Braille books but struggle to reach specialist shops; for school students who need a quiet place to work but share a bedroom with siblings, or whose bedroom is too small to contain a desk*. In some parts of Barnet, the fourth largest borough in London, a single mother of three must now pay to take two buses to reach the nearest library.

Ali Smith is not only one of Britain’s greatest living writers; along with Philip Pullman, she has been the foremost author championing library protection. Her 2015 collection, Public Library and Other Stories, is a series of pieces demonstrating how libraries and reading have inspired and shaped her work and our world. Between each story, we hear from ordinary people across the UK who wrote to her with tales of how libraries had made them who they are. The responses included in the book are articulate and thoughtful – would they have been so, had their authors not grown up with public libraries? One correspondent writes, “The only way I can express how important public libraries are is to tell you about myself.” You’ll notice that I had to resort to doing the same. I hope that I’ve now persuaded you that the public library is an institution that matters. It can change lives. It is too important a part of what should be guaranteed to all citizens – education, participation, security, the right to work – to be left to chance. The burden cannot be put on the ‘Big Society’.

More than that, the law says that it shouldn’t. Yes, yes, you say, libraries are very worthy causes. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could afford to keep them up. But public libraries are not a ‘nice to have’ extra. If you’re a UK citizen or resident, you have the right to a state-provisioned library, under the 185o Public Libraries Act and the 1964 Libraries and Museums Act, which recognised how fundamental libraries were. By this legislation, which hasn’t been rescinded, the government of the day is bound to provide funding for “comprehensive and efficient” free public library services. And yet, Ali Smith warns, if the statistics on past closures, combined with the announcement of planned closures, can be believed, “by the time this book is published there will be one thousand fewer libraries in the UK than there were at the time I began writing the first of the stories.” It’s not a long book – there are twelve stories in total. This number is shocking.

So, please, if you didn’t need a library growing up, if protests against library closures seem to you like the bourgeois left in delusional denial about the need to cut something and suffering irrational paranoia about class war, then think instead of someone who did need a library – whether it’s me, the working-class Victorian denied the vote because he was thought too uneducated to participate in politics, or Maya Angelou and other great writers from disadvantaged backgrounds. Trust me, the users of Friern Barnet Library are not members of the Corbynista intelligentsia. Our main road consists of off-licences, chicken joints and increasingly closed-down speciality shops. It’s a community of regular people who, unexpectedly, came together to defend something that was needed and treasured.


The official re-opening of the library, after a ten-month fight with the council

I was as surprised as anyone about this. (Did I snobbishly assume that smoking, tracksuit-wearing, loud and sometimes foul-mouthed loiterers on the high street were all unregistered to vote? That the older people who feature in local news stories and talk a lot about their dogs and what gives you cancer were unmoved by local political issues?) But maybe it came as a shock because, really, the public library is British – or London – society’s last remaining community centre. Maybe there was literally no other shared thing to bring Friern Barnet together, where I might have witnessed these people participating in civic life, or even got to know them.

The Community Library now provides cheap coffee, yoga and pilates classes, and support groups for everything from depression to dementia. Second-language English-speakers feel comfortable coming in for a chat. When doing research in Paris’ national (public) libraries, I often shared a desk with a rambling, eating, odour-emitting homeless person, or a rambling, eating, odour-emitting Chinese man using the wi-fi to Skype his family. One librarian recording his experience for The Guardian explained that he’s frequently told, “You are the only person I have spoken to all day.”

If you believe in the principles of social equality that citizens – especially second-class citizens – have fought for over a long history, if you believe in knowledge for all, or even just the state abiding by its own laws, then get involved. Government-backed councils have been holding, as quietly as possible, ‘consultations’ about further library closures and ‘conversions’ into voluntary-run spaces. They do these on the assumption that no one will take the opportunity to give their views – prove them wrong. If you live in or grew up in Barnet, you can sign this. Even if you’ve not been in your local library since you were ten, go and find out whether it’s under threat. I promise they’ll be happy to see you. And no one will eat your brains.

*Thanks to Jazzy, whose perceptive world observations can be found at 80elephants.wordpress.com, for reminding me of this last point.

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