Monday, January 17, 2011

A shallow piece of dignity

Much rabble-rousing was occurring in the Twitsphere yesterday around the hashtag “#savelibraries”, a response to proposed cuts to library services in England and Wales. People were encouraged – initially, as far as I can tell, by the comedian-cum-provocateur Robin Ince – to explain in sub-140-character form why they thought these temples of auto-didacticism were a good idea. And there were many heartwarming tales of people finding refuge in these temples of bookishness, and of using them as springboards to better things, better worlds, better lives.

Every now and then, someone popped up to suggest that the best way to support libraries is to use them; politicians would not dare to cut back a service that millions of voters used on a regular basis. I felt a little guilty at this. OK, I haven’t been in the UK much in recent years, but when I have, I haven’t exactly been battering down the doors of my local reference section. I’m not sure whether I’ve even had a library card since I was a child. Do they still have library cards, or do users get a chip implanted in their necks? I don’t know.

But then why should I feel guilty? I don’t make use of housing benefit or income support or domestic violence refuges or soup kitchens, but I still think they should be available as part of an overall need to iron out the social creases. Which suggests that my perception of libraries – a place for people who can’t afford to buy that many books – is diametrically opposed to that of the head of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, who  claimed that they were too white and middle-class. So should the sort of earnest Guardian readers who campaign to save libraries visit them to demonstrate support, or avoid them because they can afford to buy books at Waterstones, and they’re crowding out the single mums? God damn you England, why does even reading have to be a class issue?

One observation, or maybe two. When I was editing the Guinness Book of Records, I’d be on the receiving end of accusations that I was dumbing the product down, that there were too many pictures of luscious babes in the world’s most expensive bikinis and elderly Indian gentlemen hammering nails into various bits of their anatomies; and not enough info about the world’s rarest tulip. My argument, then and now, was that we were persuading the most book-averse demographic – boys of about 12 – to ask for a book for Christmas, and around that time it was only us and JK Rowling who could do that. And I still maintain that that’s not a bad thing to be doing.

On the other hand, when I enter a bookshop or library, and wander to the fiction section, and seek out the C’s, and I see half a dozen Jonathan Coes and even fewer JM Coetzees, separated by a vast breezeblock of Paulo Coelho, I do wonder whether simply saying to people “Here are lots of books; why not read some of them?” is quite enough.

11 comments:

expat@large said...

or write less of them... problem solved!

expat@large said...

p.s. I'm doing my bit!

Chris said...

I'm torn about Waterstones. The one where I live is the only book shop left (not including the second hand one, and charity shops), and I want it to stay because of that, but it is useless for actually buying books in. Depth of stock seems to be a thing of the past, I do miss Borders.

Billy said...

When I worked in Hounslow, I used to go to the library most lunchtimes & read. I never had a card there, but I read plenty, including some Gore Vidal essays & some Beckett criticism.

Wes White said...

It's interesting this widespread perception of under-use, which I suspect is driven by this very instinct - "politicians would not dare to cut back a service that millions of voters used on a regular basis".

It's true that usage has declined in the last 10 years, but given the way people talk about their alleged underuse, it's still amazingly high. About 40% of adults used a library in the last year, and the figure is *far higher* for children, so we can safely say at least 25million people in the UK used a library in the last year. (http://www.thebookseller.com/news/126373-library-visitors-continue-to-decrease.html)

In Somerset, where the Council has proposed to close 20 of its 34 libraries, there were 3million branch visits last year from a population of around 500,000 - so, on average, one visit every couple of months for every person in the county.

Even after the drop that there has been, library services are still by a very long way the most popular voluntary service provided by councils - despite the relentless attempts to reduce their funding in times both good and bad.

Tim Footman said...

Very true, e@l. I’ve not written far more books than I've written.

True, Chris. Even Waterstones isn’t entirely stocked with bad books, is it?

Sadly, Billy, I think that might prove the point of the cutters. I mean, Vidal and Beckett? Why couldn’t you have been reading some uplifting stuff, like the Susan Boyle book?

Welcome, Wes, and thanks for that. I think the problem is that the effects of library closures aren't immediately apparent; nobody's going to die. But 30 years down the line, we might realise what we've lost...

brokenbiro said...

Thanks for alerting me to the #savelibraries hashtag, Tim - missed that one and, as the newest library assistant in town, am keen to join in! I'm fortunate to work in Wirral where drastic closures were averted at the eleventh hour a couple of years ago after fierce protest. See this article.

Despite the many other services provided - not least of which is a space for anyone to come and spend time without having to buy anything or attend anything - the sad fact is that our 'value' is measured only in number of withdrawals, so I am heartened by Wes's comments above

blackwatertown said...

Perhaps you feel guilty because somewhere deep down within that Challenger Deep you call your psyche (mine's Bob, or maybe Jim, no Bob)you still think of yourself as the sort of person who might use a library. And not in a tramp kind of way.
One of our local libraries has been on telly all day, cos it's run by community volunteers.
Our localest library cunningly combines lending with second-hand selling - an irresistable pairing as far as I'm concerned.
I lied - it's not our nearest - that would in fact be our most lovely library bus which chugs into the village once a week. Steep steps to get in, but otherwise always a pleasure.... Some day I'll be on the shelf inside too, someday....
(Hmmm - the word verification to leave this comment was "arstrad" - was that a comment on my comment? cheeky bugger)

Tim Footman said...

So does that mean that reference-only sections, encyclopedias etc, are pretty much doomed, Biro?

See, I'm all for volunteers doing stuff like that, BWT. But you know damn well that volunteers are thickest on the ground in the places where they're least needed.

brokenbiro said...

We get very little reference traffic, and it's mainly for local history and family research. Some would say the reference section is being superseded by the internet, but we know the dangers of that (also, as I just read somewhere online but can't find the source of now: 'The internet has all the answers, a reference librarian just the right one.')

We're merging with the council's One Stop Shop service, which feels like a good marriage - but it's making the librarian's edgy!

blackwatertown said...

re the volunteers availability inversely proportionate to need - sadly often true as you say