Libraries again and again

National Library Day is Saturday 6th February. Here we are again, defending public libraries, arguing for them to be kept open in the face of so-called austerity, reminding people of the value of free access to books.

Public libraries are in danger. Cutting them is a shortsighted policy; libraries contribute in the long run to many, many people’s knowledge and understanding, to their creative abilities and to their imagination and wonder. They do not cost much, in comparison with, say Trident or HS2 or keeping people in prisons.

We need to hear and repeat the arguments supporting public libraries from those who benefitted from open access and a friendly librarian in their youth, from those who are out-of-pocket and who benefit from reading for free (as well as using the other facilities of public libraries) and for the civilising influence of culture on a country. Neil Gaiman said that libraries are

the thin red line between civilisation and barbarism.

I bring three witnesses to support National Library Day.

Peter Balaba, Head Librarian, Nakaseke Community Library, Uganda.

Peter says,

Nakaseke is a very rural region. Most of the population live as subsistence farmers, growing crops like coffee, maize or beans or raising animals. This is not a rich area. Perhaps sometimes people have enough produce to sell and make extra money, but very few people have books in their homes. No one has a computer to access the internet. This is why the library is so important for the community here.

For the farmers of Nakaseke, the information the library provides is vital. It can mean the difference between a good crop and a bad one. A good crop will feed their families and leave something over to sell. A bad crop can mean ruin.

There are no books in the schools here – they do not even have money to buy desks or chairs for the children. The classrooms are bare. So we run outreach programmes for the children, which means that up to 100 children might be in the library – so many we have to put half of them in our reading tent outside.

Nakaseke library has been supported by Book Aid International since 2003. Their slogan is BOOKS CHANGE LIVES.

66 Bookaid logo

Zadie Smith, novelist

23 Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith tried to save Kensal Rise Library in London, but it was closed with 5 others in 2011, saving £1m annually.

I can see that if you went to Eton or Harrow, like so many of the present government, it is hard to see how important it is to have a local library. But then, it’s always difficult to explain to people with money what it’s like to have very little. But the low motives [of the government] as it tries to worm out of its commitment … is a policy so shameful that they will never live it down.” Local libraries, Smith said, are “gateways to better, improved lives”. (Guardian 16th 2015)

The article that reported this goes on to list other libraries under threat in Fife, Newcastle, Liverpool and Lewisham in London. Writers such as Zadie Smith and many others are active in the campaign to save them.

Great Shelford Library, Cambridgeshire, by James Yardley via WikiCommons

Great Shelford Library, Cambridgeshire, by James Yardley via WikiCommons

Ali Smith, writer

229 Ali Sm

She is one of the most inventive writers of the current day. Her novel How to be both was the success of last year. In 2015 Ali Smith also published Public Library and other stories. The book contains 12 short stories, none of them called Public Library. The title comes from the interspersed comments from other bookish people about the importance of libraries, especially for younger people. The theme of the collection concerns the benefits of reading, not only for writing but also for connections between people.

Ali Smith’s stories demonstrate over and over again the power of the word, delights readers with her inventiveness, her creativity, her quirky view on things so that it is as if she takes you by the shoulders and shows you a familiar thing in a different way.

She is playful with words and informative about their histories. And she lists, lingers on lists of everything. Her stories connect people through fiction, (Katherine Mansfield) and other cultural things (Dusty Springfield, Scotland).

The importance of books and libraries cannot be denied.

One short story from the collection made available to download and read by Pool here: The Art of Elsewhere.

Public Library and other stories by Ali Smith, published in 2015 by Hamish Hamilton. 220 pp

Charlie Brown

And another witness – Peanuts!

223 Peanuts library

Linked post

Library cuts are pay cuts. Really! December 2014.

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Filed under Books, Libraries, Reading, words, Writing

11 Responses to Libraries again and again

  1. Eileen

    Excellent — we love our libraries and the library staff, always so helpful and informative – keep up the good work in keeping them open.
    Happy reading.

    • Caroline

      Thanks Eileen. Library staff are great. They seem to like solving bookish problems, and tracking down just what you want. Love ’em!

  2. Lovely post … I particularly love Ali Smith’s book title. I love the idea that you have National Libraries Day.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this comment. Yes we have a National Libraries Day in the UK, but our libraries are under great threat. Some good news from Helen, who has put up details of the way our local library service is changing its arrangements to ensure its future. Some imaginative thinking here.
      And dont forget those libraries where books are rare!

  3. Helen Ashley

    Here in Devon, our 50 libraries are – for the foreseeable future – SAFE from closure. That’s because, while the County Council retains statutory authority for providing the service, negotiations are almost complete for a Trust to take over running the service – to be launched in April. The board includes staff, representatives of Friends groups, and independent trustees.
    At a collective Friends Groups meeting I’ve just attended, we heard how the Chair of the Trust, Julie Dent, has been passionate about libraries since she was encouraged as a child by her village librarian. So they’ve appointed the right person there.
    The Trust is a charity, so able to raise funds – which County Councils are not permitted to do – to develop and improve Devon’s library service for future generations. Devon decided on this after studying Suffolk and York, where similar things have happened. The library service staff have been working extremely hard to make this happen, and negotiating the best possible deal from the County Council. And it was good to hear that Ciara Eastell, our current enthusiastic Head of Library Services, has been appointed as Chief Executive of the Trust.
    Friends groups become more important in this new development, as ambassadors for the service, to help with fundraising, and putting on events to raise the profile of the libraries. So if you’re not a member already, find out about the Friends of your local library, to see how you can help to ensure your library evolves into the future.
    And another good read about the importance of the local library is in Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography: “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?”

    • Caroline

      Thank you Helen. Thank you so much for this information about one way of ensuring the continuation of libraries, especially in the days of great threat. And with the Friends Group becoming more significant it looks as if the process is democratic.
      As a user of Devon Libraries – books, poetry and writing groups – I like that the appointments already nnounced are of library-lovers.
      Thank you also for the book recommendation.
      See you soon I hope

  4. Keep up the fight against the Philistines, Caroline. I wonder if you explained that books, like nuclear missiles, could kill people if, say, a bookcase collapses on top of you, might they then prove more precious to the politicians?

    • Caroline

      I guess I’ll go on with this one. Which does more good for people: Libraries vs missiles? No contest.
      Thanks for adding your voice Anne.

  5. Great post, Caroline. I love the way you continue to advocate for reading, books and libraries. And how fabulous that you have a National Library Day. I wonder how many people are aware of it. A few more, thanks to you. 🙂

    • Caroline

      Thanks Norah. I hope having a National Day makes a little difference. I went and wished the librarians/volunteers ‘Happy Library Day Today’ and they did a wuh-hoooooo! But it’s a filthy day here, so many people will not have ventured out. I hope people are seeing the value of libraries, and not just for books. I went for a writers’ meeting. We had a iively debate about feedback and some earnest thinking about punctuation. We should celebrate libraries getting people together about writing.

  6. Pingback: Monday musings on Australian literature: National Libraries Day (UK) | Whispering Gums

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