It’s a shame some libraries are closing, but this is not the end of civilisation. Quite the oppositeby Leo Benedictus / March 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Austerity shows up a nation’s soft spots like lemon juice on cuts. The British, it turns out, are a people who will accept the sale of their water, but not their forests. Radio 6 Music, we have now discovered, is one of their most cherished institutions. And libraries? Well, perhaps some very strong resistance there was always on the cards. For many years, these places have been a progressive totem, a route to betterment for the motivated poor and, more importantly, their children. Among all the public services, libraries occupy a unique position: their clients are neither forced to use them, as they are hospitals and schools, nor capable of overusing them, as the indignant right so loves to claim of benefits. Libraries, in short, are almost unbegrudgeable.
Which makes the councils proposing to shut more than 450 across the country look like vandals. In response, successful authors such as Julia Donaldson have come forward to describe their own debt to libraries. Alan Bennett called it “child abuse” to close them. In a frothy attack that became a viral battle cry, Philip Pullman even compared the idea to “the fanatical Bishop Theophilus in the year 391 laying waste to the Library of Alexandria.”
Although an admirable man in many ways, Pullman is prone—and perhaps partial—to hyperbole. But the heat of his rage does spring from a wider fire, evidenced by the 22,000 people who have spread his words on Facebook, and the thousands more who have staged sit-ins and shush-ins at dozens of different protests across the country.
In many cases, the protesters are surely right. Although libraries often look dowdy and half-loved, many are also used and useful. Children’s borrowing is increasing year-on-year. Yet the case for preservation can be oversold. It must be at least imaginable that the benefits of some libraries cannot justify their cost. I also wonder whether the protesters, in trumpeting the joy of reading, might do more harm than good. Listening to a declaration of how wonderful books are (World Book Night, on 5th March, was one recent example), what I hear most loudly is a group of people feeling they have to say so. No one troubles to declare this for computer games. Instead of making books seem fun, the well-intentioned merely spread a whiff of burning martyr round the act of reading.
The kernel of this attitude, I think, is the idea that all books—even bad ones—are endangered objects, and therefore intrinsically virtuous. As rival electronic entertainments encroach on long-form reading’s patch, people have begun to see something wholesome in Pullman’s stories of a boyhood spent in libraries, while it is conventional to see the opposite in a child devoted to his Xbox. One might argue that books offer a better education than games, but they are also more isolating—there are no two-player books—and just as prone to being overused. “Human beings can lose their lives in libraries,” Saul Bellow wrote in Him with His Foot in His Mouth. “They ought to be warned.”
The talk of a future in which children cannot access books is also not just wrong, but backwards. E-readers—already available for £52, and falling—offer an incomparably more convenient way for anyone to find good things. While defending libraries, surely there is also time to promote the fact that, thanks to Project Gutenberg and Google Books, every child in the country can now download virtually any out-of-copyright book for nothing. (Piracy will doubtless do the same for most in-copyright books too, as may digital lending, though this is less cause for celebration.)
The thought of reading books on screens does not make everybody comfortable, of course. The campaign group Voices for the Library even hosts a poem denouncing the Kindle on its website. But look who loves it: youngsters. A survey for World Book Night found that 58 per cent of teenagers have already read a book electronically. Freed from paper in this way, books have a much better chance of becoming cool again. When I was a teenager, it would have been laughable to suggest that the next generation’s favourite activity would be reading and writing—yet texting, Facebook and the rest have made it so. Likewise, I doubt my parents’ generation could have imagined that hip-hop, a ghetto upgrade on rhyming poetry, would become the world’s most popular style of music. Such transformations in an art form’s image are possible, but only when the medium is modern.
The switch from page to screen is certainly a radical one, however, so the over-my-dead-bodiers should not be mocked too caustically. Instead we should remind them, gently, that they have become obsessed with crockery instead of food. If they won’t listen, and start talking about Alexandria again, then we should rub our hands and say this: the Royal Library of Alexandria was almost certainly not destroyed by Bishop Theophilus, or any other fanatic, in 391, or any other year; it is most likely to have decayed slowly, thanks to a mixture of perishable book technology and lack of interest in its contents. Digital storage, we might add, means that any comparable loss is now more or less impossible for the rest of human history. When the children of 2011 look back, they will not see this as the year their local libraries were taken away. This will be the year they all got libraries of their own.
As the sales of e-books finally start to soar, what effect will this digital revolution have on publishers, readers and writers? Click here to read Tom Chatfield’s in-depth look at the future of reading