Our Libraries Are Outdated but They Can Still Survive; Threats to Close a Fifth of London's Book Havens Are Sad but Inevitable. They Need Reinvention to Have a Future

Article excerpt

Byline: Simon Jenkins

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CYes, we were all brought up in public libraries. We were all rescued by them from a troubled past. They are secular churches, places of meditation, succour and faith. For those with no books, computers, e-books, downloads and childcare facilities, the local library is the last refuge of a civilised society.

The trouble is that a dwindling number of people exist in the gap between those who are not remotely interested in books and those who can find literary stimulus without the intercession of the state. In the galaxy of possible cuts to local services, the closure of perhaps a fifth of London's neighbourhood libraries may be sad but does it really constitute what Philip Pullman calls, in the argot of his trade, "the darkening of things"? For older readers, libraries are like cod-liver oil, Hovis and branch-line steam trains. They evoke nostalgia for lost youth, even if few can state when they last borrowed a book from one. I hesitate to suggest that applies to most of the celebrities who gathered for last Saturday's "shh-in" for Save Our Libraries Day. The truth is that library visits have fallen some 20 per cent over the decade and book borrowing by a third.

When one of my local libraries was threatened with closure a decade ago, we reacted as if the council was proposing to massacre little children. It was like a branch-line closure that would supposedly "cut off " a whole community.

No library would mean a swift descent into a cultural abyss. We saved the library and left it to remain what it was, mostly an informal old people's day centre and children's romp room.

My present library is more like that of a provincial university that has lost its students. Anyone wanting to browse a book for free has only to cross the road to Waterstone's and settle into an armchair with a friendly cup of coffee. Love them as I may, most public libraries are old-fashioned, run by dedicated evangelicals with a training and skill far outstripping the demands of their customers. Bookshop workers need not be trained; they just need to love books.

I can just recall when the local library was privately supplied by Boots the chemist, run at the back of the pharmacy and charging tuppence a week per book. They lasted until 1966, when they were finally run out of business by ratepayer libraries. There were gloriously musty rooms lined with books at the back of the chemists, where adults would gather and chat over the latest best-seller for hours, while I was allowed my weekly Arthur Ransome.

That said, I could never see why new or second-hand books, entertainment videos and music CDs need to be supplied free on the taxpayer. Opera, theatre and cinema are not supplied free, except in China. What is the difference? I'm sure young people need encouragement to read, though I note that 75 per cent of students now claim to be "too busy" to use a library. …