Are our public libraries worth fighting for?

Even in these times of economic crisis, the UK’s GDP in real terms is now three times greater than it was in 1964. Then we were opening libraries: now we are closing them.

Today is Save Our Libraries Day – as worthwhile a cause as any for those of us who care about learning, about culture. But while I naturally support this campaign, I wish I could feel more enthusiastic about it.

Whenever I walk into a public library these days, my heart sinks. This didn’t use to be the case. I owe much to public libraries, which helped open my eyes to so much that is now so valuable to me. In these libraries, I was surrounded by the riches of human culture, and, like a sponge, I absorbed what I could. Even with books I merely browsed, the subject and the writer were stored away in my mind for future reference: I absorbed, through osmosis, what was around me: I became aware of culture.

However, when I walk into public libraries these days (something I tend not to do as I find the experience too depressing), I usually see very little that is worth absorbing. Books of quality, of cultural worth, are generally conspicuous by their absence: instead, shelves are filled with vapid celebrity biographies, misery memoirs, television spin-offs, and Tesco-lite ephemera. It’s not that these books don’t have a place in a public library: libraries have always catered for popular tastes, and that is as it should be. It is when they take over, and sideline out of existence the more worthwhile products of human culture and learning, that one has to ask oneself whether enough remains of that noble concept that created these libraries in the first place.

I do not think I exaggerate. Yesterday in the Guardian, Sophia Deboick, historian and writer on popular culture, addressed the same question, and gave a description of modern libraries that I all too sadly recognised:

Very little study space was available and the book stock did not suggest great ambitions for the community it served. Misery memoirs and celebrity biographies abounded. Any decent books were hoarded at the central library and there was usually only one copy of non-fiction hardback titles for the whole county. DVDs were a central part of our offering. Although partly justifiable as money-spinners, I still found it profoundly depressing that we had a whole wall of gross-out comedies and spoof horror films, while the literary classics section was afforded all of two feet of shelving space. Libraries should be about leisure as well as learning, but there comes a point when entertainment [takes] over from education as the primary focus.

From my own perspective, I have on several occasions looked at the book sales in our local public library, and have been shocked to see books of high quality sold off at ridiculously cheap prices because they were not wanted on the shelves. I have picked up for a mere couple of pounds each handsome and virtually brand new copies of the Complete Essays of Montaigne, the Collected Fictions of Borges, George Thomson’s translation of the Oresteia of Aeschylus, etc. I felt embarrassed: paying merely two pounds for such treasures is effectively robbing the community. When I bought the Essays of Montaigne, I remember asking the lady at the counter why the library was selling this off. “Surely,” I said, “a book such as this would grace any library? Instead of selling this off, shouldn’t you be giving this pride of place on the shelves?” I did not receive an answer. She may well have thought the same as myself, but was powerless: friends of mine who are librarians tell me that it is often council policy to sell off books that aren’t being taken out. In short, populism is the order of the day: the concept of something – such as, say, the Essays of Montaigne – having to it an inherent merit that goes beyond mere popular taste is a concept that is nowadays merely sneered at: to make the best freely available to everyone is apparently “elitist” and “patronising”. The result is, of course, that if a member of the public does want to read Montaigne but is too impecunious (as I was in my youth) to afford it, then that’s too bad: the public library has already sold its copy to me for a princely two quid. And no-one going into a library now will have the opportunity of absorbing culture by osmosis, as I did in my younger years, because, after all, you can’t absorb what isn’t around you.

So yes, I will be supporting the campaign to save our libraries, albeit without as much enthusiasm as I’d like, but, should this campaign succeed, that really should not be the end of the story. If we are to subscribe to the ideal of Preservation of the Good, we must not only have some idea of what constitutes the Good (and hence, is worth preserving); we must also allow that certain products of our human culture do have an inherent value, irrespective of popularity. Otherwise, we merely end up with shelf upon shelf of celebrity biographies, misery memoirs, television spin-offs and Tesco-lite ephemera. And these really aren’t worth fighting for.

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17 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on February 5, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    My local library has a few shelves of Penguin classics, it also possible to get ‘Don Quixote’ in Spanish, ‘The Recovery of Lost Time’ in English,’The Magic Mountain’ and much else including quite up to date language learning CD’s and OS maps. I’m in no position to judge the quality of the Punjabi books on the shelves.
    I have no idea how long current policy will continue, but at present I have no complaints. Of course, I do admit that I don’t have the energy to read as much you and I will almost certainly never read Aeschylus, but Borges shouldn’t be too much of a stretch and I am surprised that no one was interested in reading him.

    Reply

    • Your local library is obviously far better than mine. I’m pleased to hear that at least some libraries are maintaining standards, and I certainly hope that the state you describe in your local library will continue, but I wouldn’t take it for granted: the libraries in our locality have certainly declined visibly over the last 15 years or so. Recently, I went back to the town where I had grown up, and, in a fit of nostalgia, walked into the local library: it was a shadow of what it had been. The education I had so gratefully received from this library in my youth is simply not available now.

      Reply

      • Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on February 6, 2011 at 1:00 pm

        We have talked about this quite often in the recent past. What I would wish to express to you right now is that the closures are a sickening traversty and I don’t think we should distract ourselves at present with the reduced quality of what the same old Tory scumbags are closing down and concentrate on opposing the fact that they are closing them down. There would, at least, be a chance to improve them in future if they are at least there.
        It is not only poorer people who want to discover more about culture who will suffer from this. It reminds me of HG Wells ‘Time Machine’ where society becomes generally more anodyne because it can no longer assert what is valuable. These type of things are at the very least as appalling as anything that occurred during the Thatcher years, if not far worse.

      • Posted by Evie on February 6, 2011 at 3:02 pm

        Himadri, I have had the same experience as you of revisiting the library I knew well in my childhood. I moved back about 18 months ago to the town I grew up in, and now live opposite the library. When I was here 30 years ago, the library had two floors; the ground floor had shelves and shelves of books including a large, well-stocked fiction section, with a large separate room for children’s books, and the whole basement was a reference room, with newspapers as well as a wide range of reference books, including foreign language dictionaries, etc, and at one end a number of study carrells with doors where I sometimes used to do my homework. There was also a room on the ground floor where they put on art exhibitions or held talks.

        Now it is all on one floor; the children’s section is one corner of the room; the separate exhibtion room has gone; the stock is pathetic; computers take up about a quarter of the space. It is lacking in the bestsellers you mention, but is full of mediocre titles. I do want to support it, so I always have two or three books on loan, but each time I go it takes me a very long time to find something I want to read.

        But as Shonti says, above, the main thing at the moment is to try to ensure the survival of libraries. If we lose them, it will be very hard to get them back. Things can be ordered in for those who know what they are looking for, and it’s a vicious circle – if we don’t use them, and don’t request the books we want, the quality will continue to decline simply to those books that are borrowed regularly.

        I continue to be sad at how far my local library has declined, but I still love it, for all its faults, and will keep trying to think of ways to improve it.

      • Hello Evie & Shonti (if I can reply to you both at the saeme time!),

        I do agree with you that saving the libraries from the cuts is the most immediate issue, since, as you both say, if the libraries go, we won’t get them back. But … no, it’s not a “but”: it’s an “and” … And it is equally true to say that if we succumb to relativism (which is, I think, nihilistic at heart) to such an extent that we can (as Shonti puts it) “no longer assert what is valuable”, then that too is an irreparable loss. To draw attention to this issue is not, I think, a “distraction”: this issue is vitally important, and we should address right now, even as we are campaigning to save the libraries.

        I’m sorry to say I plead guilty to not using my local libraries: it is partly because I am now in a happy position of being able to buy most of the books I want; but also because I do find going into my local library somewhat depressing, given its current state. Perhaps I should renew my membership and make proper use of it, if only to show my support.

  2. This is very interesting for me, so thanks. I promise I won’t complain about my library anymore. So, here is a little look at what is happening here.

    In France, we now have two words to say library, one is “bibliothèque”, which means the place lends only books (those don’t really exist anymore) The second word is “médiathèque”, where you can borrow books, audio books, CDs, DVDs and in my local one, posters of famous paintings.

    I live in a small suburban town and the médiathèque is in the center, close to the music school and the dance school. On Wednesdays, it is full of children with mothers or nannies. There’s a special room for children books, with seats. One Wednesday per month, someone tells tales to small children. They have a reading group for teenagers, two blogs where they review books (one for adults literature and one for children books)
    There are many, many magasines and papers. In the hall, there’s a basket where people can drop the books they don’t want anymore so that someone else can read them.
    Computers are available, with Internet access. Children can book an hour to play Wii and meet other children there.
    The employees organize exhibitions and work with the local schools. The display tables are stocked with rather challenging books.
    And it’s free for children under 18. Adults pay a ridiculous fee.
    This is a very common library.

    The library where I used to go as a child has moved in a bigger place and became a médiathèque too. I hear it is well stocked.

    I’ve never heard of a library closing. Publishers sometimes complain and accuse libraries to cut theirs profits as people buy less books.

    But I probably pay more taxes than I would if I were living in Great-Britain.

    Reply

    • Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on February 6, 2011 at 9:08 pm

      You are correct to point out that lamenting the fallen standards of public libraries ought not to have been described as a ‘distraction’, especially in any forum of open discussion.

      I don’t have an internet facility at home so I often go into my local library to get on-line. It is a tiny facility that serves a small market village and I probably wouldn’t go there at all otherwise. The IT area has been updated and is fairly impressive but the actual book section is no more than a space of thirty feet square
      filled with less than a dozen shelves. In the past twelve months I have pediodically browsed this small area to see if there is anything there that interests me. I am by no means as wellread as many and have probably heard of more books than I have actually read, but I can honestly state that in this said period of about a year I haven’t found a single solitary book that I would be interested in reading.
      I simply don’t know any of the books on the fiction shelf. I’m not saying they are bad books, because I haven’t read them or read of them.
      I have enquired how they were selected but nobody knows or wants to provide me with a cohesive answer.
      I suspect that these books reach these paltry number of shelves because they are handed over from dissolute homes and local libraries just take them, catergorise them and keep them there because it hasn’t cost them anything to acquire them.
      I suspect most of the fiction is stuff like potboilers from the forties and fifties left in wills and since they fill up the space nicely, well, that will do…..
      It’s a state of undiluted vapidity, really,but what I’m saying is that if they deceide to convert the building into a betting shop or something, you lose the chance of making any kind of amends….

      Reply

      • The next time I’m over, Shonti, you’ll have to show me this library: it sounds an intriguing place! but really – if it is turned into a betting shop, would it really, given the state you describe, be any great loss? (Ideally, they could just turn it into an internet cafe for people like you who can’t be arsed getting an internet connection at home … :) )

  3. Fortunately for me, the Hillsborough County (Florida) Public Library system is alive and well. I love my local library! It’s the one thing on my property tax bill that I’ve never complained about paying.

    Selection is still quite good. I can find most any of the classics in numerous forms, not just printed media. I can search online and request items be sent to my local branch; I’m emailed and called via telephone when my item arrives. Great service!

    The day the library closes will be the day that civilization has begun its downhill slide into the dark abyss.

    Reply

    • From what you say, Eric, the US is more cultured and civilised in this respect, because the abyss you talk about is certainly very apparent over here, where several libraries around the country are threatened with closure, and the funds available to the remaining ones will be extremely limited. (And spent on more rubbish too, I bet, while the worthwhile stock is flogged off to people like myself.)

      Oh well – at least I have a blog where I can rant & rave about it! :)

      Reply

      • Sadly, I see a day coming when no one even reads paper/ink publications. Libraries will then, if they’re even in existence, will be more like public computer kiosks where one can go and sit and read whatever online or from ebook databases. Progress? Hmm… I’m not so sure. :(

  4. Posted by alan on February 6, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    Although I appeared to disagree with Himadri’s post with a contrary example, I do agree that this is to some extent a cultural problem. I don’t just see it as a government funding problem. I know a library a few miles from me in a different area of my city that appears better stocked and has a wealthier catchment area, but I am informed by members of my family that it is far less patronised than the library near me.
    Also, this is not just about the ability and the desire to read, it is also about attention span. How many people now have the attention span necessary to read a book? Dealing with this requires parenting and education.
    Given this audience it is probably anathema to mention the likes of Andrew Carnegie. As for Bill Gates, his foundation claims that library use in the U.S. has been enhanced since the donation of computers, and not at the expense of books. But then, I guess they would say that wouldn’t they.
    I have to admit that my two biggest concerns about the modern library is a)the lack of quiet and b) that when I first took my then much younger son into the children’s section we were immediately questioned by staff if we were ‘all right’. None of the mothers seemed to get this attention.

    Reply

    • Yes, I agree: it isn’t solely a funding problem, although I do agree that funding the immediate issue. My point is that even if this immediate issue is sorted out satisfactorily – i.e. even if these libraries are saved – the deeper malaise would remain. And there will be no nationwide campaign to draw our attention to it.

      As for your experience when you took your son to the library, I wish I could say I am surprised, but I’m not. We live in a world where certain stereotypes are perceived to be wrong, yet others seem officially approved. But let’s not get into that here: we can keep that for a later rant.

      Reply

  5. Posted by severalfourmany on February 5, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    Thanks for linking back to this older post. The state of libraries that you describe is sad but gives me some consolation that I am not alone. I moved to Richmond (VA) a few years ago and found the libraries much as you describe: celebrity memoirs, political misinformation and popular media. I thought it was just this community as we were the last city in the US to set up a public library. It was quite a shock as I moved here from Boston, which is certainly one of the great library cities of the world with more than a hundred well-funded and efficient branch libraries, dozens of university libraries and two of the three largest libraries in the US. Let us hope the libraries today are not headed in the same direction that bookstores went ten years ago.

    Reply

    • I suppose the larger libraries in London may still be of a good standard, as are university libraries – although the latter are open only to students and staff, and to ex-students. (I suppose I could get membership as an ex-student, but living a few miles outside London as I do, it isn’t easy getting into the city centre.) The local libraries, as far as I have seen, are much as I described them. I know we tend to look on the past with rose-tinted spectacles, but I am certain libraries weren’t like this back in my childhood and teenage years. It really is a terrible shame: we are short-changing the next generation very badly.

      Reply

  6. I was absolutely appalled to read how public libraries have deteriorated in the years since I left England! When I was in primary school, we had a trip to the local public library, once a fortnight, as part of the curriculum and we were all allowed to take out one book from the children’s library on a school membership card. That was in addition to my own personal membership which permitted (if I remember rightly) 3 or 4 books. And this was a not-very-good school on a local council estate. (I believe that the London Borough of Camden had a particularly good public library network.) Later on, at the age of about 13, I joined the adults’ library which allowed me to borrow up to 6 books for 2 or 3 weeks (again, I can’t remember exactly). Thus, I was able to enjoy all of Jane Austen (we only had “Pride and Prejudice” at home, the Myths of Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the Norse Myths, the great children’s classics (after I read and enjoyed them, I received them as birthday presents) and many, many other treasures. How I pity the children of today, who don’t even know what they are missing.

    Reply

    • Hello Shimona, the situation, I’m afraid, really is bad. I know I tend to rant about it a lot, but it really is quite serious. As well as the decline in the quality of public libraries, schools do not promote literacy. (There’s an interesting article here by children’s author Geraldine McCaughrean on a study carried out by academics at Dundee university – there’s a link within the article to their report – that concludes that “the failure to promote reading in secondary schools is causing pupils to regress between ages 11 and 16”.)

      Our own daughter, now 17, completed her GCSEs in a highly rated secondary school, and yet, in all the years she was at that school (in the top stream in English) she studied no Shakespeare, and no poetry; and the only two books she was obliged to read were Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” (a straightforward book that she could have read some 5 years earlier: it’s a good book, but it didn’t stretch her) and Nick Hornby’s “About a Boy”. What we may consider to be the backbone of English literature – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, etc. – weren’t even touched on.

      It seems we have gone out of or way to remove anything of any cultural value from the mainstream. I know I have my blog to let off steam on this matter, but I do find myself very deeply concerned by it all, and am frankly puzzled that so few people seem much bothered by the cultural impoverishment that seems to me all too apparent. We worry, quite rightly, about what sort of world we’ll leave behind to the next generation in terms of the economy, the environment, etc. Perhaps we should also worry about what sort of cultural world we’ll leave behind.

      Like you, I have fond memories of the public libraries I had used, both as a child and in my early youth. And I really am grateful for what I got out of them. I do hope that things are somewhat better on this front in Israel, where you are. Over here, we’re failing them badly.

      Reply

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