Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Reading Room

The following post is a guest blog by C21 Literature Deputy Editor Prof Deborah Philips:

China MiĆ©ville, Deborah Moggach, Joanna Trollope and Zadie Smith are among the 21st-century writers who have been vociferous in the defence of their local libraries. Jeanette Winterson and Alan Bennett are only two among the many contemporary authors who have written movingly about the significance that libraries have played in their lives, both have written not only about the importance of access to books, but also of the significance of the fact that the library provided a quiet space to read, and a validation of that reading. Bennett has also written a fantasy, The Uncommon Reader, of what it might mean for the nation if our own dear Queen were to discover a mobile library at the back of Buckingham Palace. Sadly, this is now even more unlikely than it once was, as mobile libraries are steadily being cut by local council.

Despite the fact that under the 1964 Museums and Public Libraries Act, local authorities are required to provide a 'comprehensive and efficient service to all', local authorities were required by the coalition government to make stringent cut backs in their budgets and given a target to reduce spending by 28%. Libraries were made to compete for funding with services for children and the elderly; in 2011, up to 800 libraries, a fifth of the number across England, were threatened with closure.

In London, Brent has closed six out of 12 local libraries, among them the Kensal Rise library, which had been opened by Mark Twain in 1900 and which could count Zadie Smith among its readers. Across the country, 32 libraries have closed and some have been turned into benign sounding 'community libraries'.  The libraries were a key component in the Conservative strategy of a 'Big Society' – understood as eminently open to being run by volunteers. Eight libraries to date are run by the local community; this means a library staffed not by librarians, with all their specialist knowledge and experience, but by volunteers who may have good will, but no training.

Another strategy to keep libraries open has been the outsourcing of library 'management'. Camden Council has been one of those considering employing a management company, and among the names considered is that of W. S. Atkins, who are among the corporations circling to take over from local authority management. W. S.  Atkins describe themselves as a 'multi-national management and consultancy company';but its origins are in engineering and building, and the founder was an evangelical Christian, an ethos that still prevails in the company (in itself a disconcerting qualification for running libraries). W.S. Atkins have experience of running libraries in America, where they have been sacked for mismanagement. It is also worth asking why it is that a company based in construction and engineering should have a particular interest in library buildings, which in England tend to be rather impressive structures, often based in central positions in a town or city.

Ken Worpole's research has demonstrated what a vital resource the public library is for communities, and for individuals.  His 2003 report Better Public Libraries shows how important they are particularly for young people and for the elderly, for the disadvantaged and the unemployed. They now provide not just newspapers but access to the Internet and he shows that the library as a public space is a significant place of transition and reflection;a space between school and home, between work and the domestic which is of particular importance to refugee and ethnic minority populations.

My own experience supports Worpole's arguments; this is anecdotal evidence, but it is telling. I live in a mansion block in Central London, and my nearest neighbours are a family from Somalia.  Six years ago, the eldest brother, knowing that I was a teacher of some kind, knocked on my door and asked if I could help his younger brother and sister, then aged 10 and 12, with their reading and writing.  After several weeks of rather dull homework sessions with me, I thought the best thing I could do for them was to haul them off to the local library. At the library we found a dedicated room and a librarian on hand to advise, stocked with computers, shelves of text books and reference books directly related to the school syllabus.  We also found rows of age appropriate fiction and DVDs, and piles of leaflets with advice on everything from how to apply to college, to finding a woman only swimming class appropriate for a young Muslim.  For the next two years, it became a Saturday morning ritual to go to the library, often with a troop of small friends and relations in tow. Six years on, the younger brother is now in his first year at university, while his sister did spectacularly well in her GCSEs, and is planning to go on to do medicine. I can take no credit for their achievements, but the library can. It provided them with information, computer space that they did not have to fight for, and, perhaps most importantly, a quiet space that was designed to support study. The library offered possibilities and potential, which they took that up and ran with.

Alan Bennett is among the local people active in the campaign to Save Primrose Hill Library. In an interview with Camden New Journal, he describes seeing a child signing up for her first library card with her younger brother.  She was, Bennett said embarking on a lifetime of reading, 'That's why  you can't quantify what the library means, because it so much the future for children like that and children who wouldn't have not merely the books, but a place to read' (Camden New Journal, 23/2/2012). Those children could have been my neighbours - who had no books at home, and nowhere to read. They all represent children across the country who depend on the library for their futures.  As Bennett argues:  'The library set you up for life. . . it is something that you should take for granted really. Libraries should be taken for granted, it is one of the things that
marks us as civilised, as a civilised community'.

Libraries can no longer be taken for granted. Public Libraries News has a 'Horror Section' on its websites with reports of impending closures, cuts to hours, book stocks and qualified staff; according to their figures, 407 libraries are now at risk of closure with more expected after the new financial year. Local libraries are at threat across the country and there is a campaign near you.

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