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.