Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Price of Everything


Birmingham Libraries are now at the point where government funding to local authorities has been cut so deeply that they have been forced to appeal for 'donations' of books from members of the public and I cannot tell you how despairing I feel about it

I expressed my views about the importance of public libraries a couple of years ago because I was so angry at the closures that were taking place all over the country. Now that the government has just announced a whole new raft of cuts, leading to more closures, or decisions like the one Birmingham has taken, I am still angry.

My first encounter with books was via the local library in Welwyn Garden City, my home town, in the 1950s. Dumped in the children's library, age 4, I selected a book from the box (in those days all picture books had the same plain library covers). I opened it up and there was Orlando, the Marmalade Cat, his Dear Wife Grace and their three Kittens, Pansy, Blache and mischievous Tinkle.

Apart from starting my well known love of cats, it also started me on the path to reading, which led me, in time, to become a librarian and a writer. My parents did not consider buying books for young children as a necessity, as many parents, for a variety of reasons, still don't. Without the books I borrowed each week, my life would have been impoverished.

When I finished university in the 1970s, I started off my library career working for Harlesden Library in the London Borough of Brent. The library, housed in an old Carnegie building (see below), served a poor, ethnically diverse community and was used by people who could not afford to buy books for themselves, or for their children.

The staff were treated with the utmost respect by locals, who valued what we offered and what we represented. I vividly recall being beckoned to the front of a long queue in the local Caribbean greengrocer - the owner succinctly informing the rest of the line that: 'this is the Librarian lady - she got to get back to work!'

Here, our libraries have been 're-structured to meet the needs of the modern user'. As far as I can see, this means they shut at odd times, just when you want to borrow a pile of books, and far too much space is now given over to desks of computers, at which people sit and dicker all day. Mainly playing mindless games. Books? Nah, don't need them. Got to move with the times. Books are relegated to fewer and fewer shelves.

When open, our libraries are frequently manned by 'volunteers' who cost nothing, but do not have the skills or breadth of knowledge to deal with public enquiries, (before you quibble, ask yourself this: would you like your kids to be taught by 'volunteer' teachers? Or your cancer to be operated on by a 'volunteer surgeon'?)

The word ''free'' seems to be anathema to this government, who believes that nobody should get anything without paying for it. They know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. I predict that it won't be long before all libraries are outsourced to a private company, who will start charging per book for borrowing them.

Between 1883 and 1929, the Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie funded 2,509 libraries all over the world. I wonder what he would say if he could see how his legacy is being dismantled in the UK today?


                                  Carnegie's sign over Edinburgh Central Library (pic. Kim Traynor)                                                            

14 comments:

  1. I think everyone making these decisions should be made to visit a country with no libraries - not because of a lack of literary-will, but simply because they can't afford them. They should witness the impact of lack of access to books - what it does to thinking, and aspirations, and imagination. And most of these people would do anything to have libraries - anything at all.

    And then the mighty of Birmingham etc might have some insight into what they are doing. Libraries are more than just books, they are the gateway to hope.

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  2. Carol, I too started my reading life in a library, and Orlando the marmalade cat was one of my favourites too. I loved going to the library every Saturday, and I am so saddened to hear about these closures. Thankfully, we still have plenty of public libraries here in NL, but I wonder for how long...this government is of a similar persuasion to the UK's. There are many many children here who only have access to books through school or the library and digital reading is just not the same as sitting with a mum/dad or grandparent and turning the pages of a book. It stimulates so much more than just the desire to read.

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    1. It's the chance to 'browse' and actually flick through a book. I do this so much when researching ..you may only find a paragraph or a sentence, but it gives colour and life to the story.

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  3. If only the government were as eager to cut the expenses and other monetary bonuses it so generously affords itself rather than strive to sever the cultural artery that feeds our library service, our entire country would be a lot better off as a whole!

    The enforced decline of the library will not only affect people from a literary perspective, it will also remove from them the opportunity to experience all kinds of interactive events and arts programmes that these essential hubs of learning provide!

    Libraries encourage and uphold a sense of belonging. They bring communities together. They provide a social sanctuary for any and all. They make accessible to everyone that which would not so easily be obtained by some. And to think that on the whim of a lump of self-serving, governmental dullards, so many undeserving people will suffer, makes my temple throb with unprecedented rapidity!!

    Great post!!

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    1. It's only when they have gone that people will see what they have lost...apart from the rich people who never use them, so see them as meaningless adjuncts

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  4. My favourite fifties library book was A Peek behind the Scenes and I've been hooked ever since. Brilliant blog post, Carol!

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    1. Thanks. Written with great sadness, though.

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  5. I suspect they will just disappear, because with the advent of things like Kindle Unlimited and more and more people reading on electronic devices all the time, they maybe couldn't offer a cheap enough service to make it worth it; if you want cheap paperbacks, you can pick them up in second hand shops or car boot sales, for 50p, everywhere - my local fruit and veg shop sells some pretty good new-ish ones for £1, for charity! Alas, times change and things end, but yes, I think it's very sad. The library in our town has just been moved to a big new Council community centre, and is very swish, with lots more new computers in it - but the shelves look rather empty.... I will go in and see if they do a book donation thing. I too have lovely memories of a small one in Northampton, where I first went in 1964. :) The main one was fabulous, with a huge research department upstairs.

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    1. As I said above..it's the serendipitous aspect that future generations will lose. Little G likes piling up the picture books and seeing what she can find. Don't get that with a Kindle...

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  6. I recently visited my mum who still lives in the same house that we grew up in. On every visit I walk past the splendid building that was our local library. We also had a 'big' library in the town centre (Burnley). The local library was such a blessing to me growing up. I loved the smell of the polish, the high counters, the Look and Learn magazines in glass(?) covers. I loved the rules and regulations and I loved the quiet. The reference library upstairs was a source of intrigue and I was too scared to go up there. Fast forward to the early nineties and I worked in the library at Leeds Art College. I witnessed first hand the library being expected to make space for, stock and run a shop selling art materials. We were expected to provide reception duties for the building. When they managed to make the caretaker redundant they expected library staff to look after the keys for all the rooms, handing them out to tutors etc. The computers started taking over. The library became nothing more than a social club for students who ate their lunch, listened to music and generally took over the asylum. I'll ever forget the student who came in to the library at 4.25 on a Friday afternoon, expecting to look for books and buy art supplies. I explained that we closed at 4.30 on a Friday and the computers had been shut down and the cash put away. She retorted "closing, but I've only just got up!" I think this was the moment I officially became a very grumpy old woman although I was only in my 40's at the time.

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    1. I think I was BORN one! How sad! My only story (well, the one I remember vividly) was being sent into the Reading Room to sort out the Irish drunks who were fighting over The Irish Times because 'they'd never hit a woman'. Golden days....

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    2. Books have always been an important part of my life and my love of them was carefully encouraged by my mother. This was in wartime and it wasn't easy to get hold of books except through the beloved library.

      The library played such an important part in my life then. Books were scarce during the war and for a widowed mother, very expensive. She was a regular visitor to our local library and there was always a pile of books for the family to enjoy.

      I can remember sitting in the air raid shelter, reading by candle light and letting the words block out the sound of the raid going on outside, a precious form of escapism.

      The feel of a book in your hands is very special and somehow comforting, you will never get that feeling from an electronic gadget although I must admit here, I do have a kindle and I do take it on holidays with me, it is so much lighter than a printed book.

      Before I moved to this area, I lived in a rural district and we were served by a mobile library and found it to be the centre for locals to meet and chat, it was an important part of our community.
      Our libraries are such a valuable facility, to lose them would be a tragedy.




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  7. I couldn't live without my library..

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