The main alibi in circulation supporting the closure of libraries is that they’ve become less popular. The reason for that, the argument goes, is that a combination of (a) the production of cheap books, (b) multi-genre TV and (c) the arrival on the internet of virtually everything that a book can offer has supplanted the need for libraries.
We need to be sharp about how we defend the library service and indeed be clear about what we are defending and what we would change about it.
Libraries provide free books, magazines and newspapers to everyone. They are a free source of information about rights, facilities and leisure, and librarians provide what is in effect an advice service in relation to all this. In many places there is also free or cheap internet access, and free or cheap borrowing of CDs and DVDs, photocopying and the like. For many people in particular groups in society – such as children, new migrants, old people, the unemployed, sixth form and further education students – libraries are more than a “leisure facility”. They are crucial to how they live and develop.
For socialists, none of this can be an optional extra. Central to our struggle for socialism has to be that every one of us has a right of access to knowledge, ideas and skills. The education system cannot and does not deliver this because even as it appears to offer that access it segregates, divides, discriminates and discards.
The argument about libraries’ decline in popularity can be answered in several ways. The age-old circularity of underfunded facilities producing this decline applies here. To take an obvious example, if you turn up with young children to a library where the money’s run out to keep the loos clean, it becomes harder to take your children there next time. Add in there poor lighting, ageing stock, broken chairs, poor heating and irregular opening hours and you have a recipe for putting people off.
The alternative sources of entertainment argument needs to be tackled in several ways at the same time. One way in which libraries could and should be protected is through their relationship with schools. This could and should be formalised so that every school and library has partnership arrangements involving children, students, teachers and librarians. Thanks to the worksheet-crazy curriculum of recent years, some schools are becoming scandalously book-free zones, while down the road there are libraries full of unread books. The fight for libraries cannot go on without the fight for books in schools.
With a diminishing pot, libraries have tried to adapt to the new media. I’m no purist on this. Accessing what we want and need in terms of knowledge, ideas and skills is now an “intermediate” activity. I, for example, use the internet to help me find the books I want to read. I use YouTube to find recordings I’m interested in. I see films and become interested in books about the films and so on. That said, are there intrinsic qualities of books that need to be defended?
As a form of cheap, portable and physically durable entertainment and education, books still have the edge over the alternatives. E-books will certainly do most of the job if people can afford the “platform” to read them on. But for the moment, at least, for young children there is no substitute for the picture book.
An issue here is specificity and variety. The sum total of books offers a range of ideas and thought not available through the mass media. The library service offers everyone access to this, though we’re reaching a point where many people aren’t aware that it does.
As with everything else I’ve been describing, this needs librarians so that the space of the library can be used to expand the “socialisation” of reading – through talks, readings, book groups, advice “surgeries”, the Summer Reading Challenge for children and the like.
The prevailing model for us as human beings is as private consumers, and libraries and reading are being squeezed into this model. By defending the job of every librarian and demanding improvements to the service we are also opposing the idea that the mind is little more than a shopping trolley. We are saying instead that we are social beings who can use reading, writing and talk as part of our struggle for a better society.
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