The Quiet Revolution: Britain Is Closing Down Public Libraries Just as the Arab World Is Opening Up Access to Literature

By Warner, Marina | New Statesman (1996), July 11, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Quiet Revolution: Britain Is Closing Down Public Libraries Just as the Arab World Is Opening Up Access to Literature


Warner, Marina, New Statesman (1996)


While libraries are being closed down across the UK, they are opening elsewhere in countries where people want to make their society a better place. The map of the situation at voices-forthelibrary.org.uk shows thick clusters of pink and violet dots; these represent the hundreds of councils that, as they cast around for savings to meet the government's orders, are closing down - or selling off- library services.

At a rough assessment of the scatter, it looks as if the most deprived and the more remote towns and regions are being hardest hit. Here and there, some effective campaigning has saved libraries; threats now on hold after passionate protest are marked on the map with sprinklings of green. Many of these reprieves are in places such as Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast, which has its own literary festival.

Good news, but the fear is that if rescuing libraries depends on local direct action, it will be only the most vocal, networked and savvy who will succeed. The worst aftermath of all the scandals and profiteering of the past two years has been a general lassitude and loss of nerve, a pervasive sense of defeatism about the civil sphere and the public good as its ideals are denatured by talk of the "big society". I, too, often feel such loss of resolve and have to shake myself out of it.

In the Middle East, the picture is different. A number of libraries are coming into existence; they are a less visible expression of the revolutions taking place since the Arab spring but a crucial part of the same movement, spurred on by the same desires to have freedoms, including the freedom to read every kind of book and explore every kind of idea, past and present. Censorship has affected not only political writing and journalism, but all kinds of literature, even production of the classics of the Arabic canon. But now, the motives and energy that carried the revolutions to success are fuelling quieter ventures dedicated to ending the dearth of works in print.

In Morocco, in the countryside near Marra-kesh, the Dar al-Ma'mun cultural centre is under construction; but when it opens, it will be a large, open-access library (dam-arts.org). When women began to be recruited to the project from the surrounding villages, they were asked to help to wrap the books in protective film, paste in chips with bar codes and shelve them. Very soon, the women were saying that they would like to learn to read them, too. This had not been anticipated. But the organisers of the centre have responded and set up classes, which are being well attended (though men so far are staying away; perhaps male pride prevents them admitting they need anything like lessons).

Then, the children did not want to be left out, nor their teachers, who had only primers and exercise books for their classes. So a "children's chapter" at the centre has also taken off, in collaboration with local schools, and now has 5,000 tides. In this way, the original scope of the centre has expanded, though its principal ambition remains: to be a workshop for translators. The centre is named after the Caliph al-Ma'm[carrot]un, who in the 9th century founded the Be[i]t al-Hikma in Baghdad as a fountainhead of scholarship. Arabic translators, working on Plato, Archimedes and Euclid, preserved much Greek learning. The new library takes its cue from those precursors in Baghdad and wants to contribute, through a form of "soft power", to the politics of the future in the Middle East, which writers as well as practitioners in other media are revisioning in their works.

The poet and translator Omar Berrada, who is helping to collect books for the Moroccan library, explains: "Translation is central to our whole project . . . Our globalised world puts forth transparency and free communication as supreme values. But what is communicated is often merely surfaces. It produces an illusion of understanding, beneath which lies a superficial projection of simplistic images (cliches) on to other people/s. …

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