As hundreds of libraries close across the country, it is time to think radically about how to reinvent themby Sameer Rahim / July 16, 2015 / Leave a comment
Speaking at the opening of Manchester’s Free Public Library in 1852, Charles Dickens declared an “earnest hope that the books thus made available will prove a source of pleasure and improvement in the cottages, the garrets and the cellars of the poorest of our people.” This library was the first in Britain to be supported by local taxes. The Free Libraries Act of 1850 allowed municipal authorities to charge ratepayers a penny to fund book-borrowing services—on the condition that two-thirds of them agreed. In Manchester, the mayor John Potter led a successful referendum campaign, and then solicited donations from the whole range of Victorian society—from working men’s committees to Prince Albert. An increasingly literate and politically engaged population was hungry for knowledge, and groups such as the Chartists—who had fought for the 1850 act—and philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie ensured that free access to books was rapidly spread across the country. By 1900 there were 295 public libraries in Britain. A library act in 1919 abolished the penny tax and allowed county councils to build libraries without a referendum, paving the way for an enormous rise in library numbers. By the 1990s, in addition to school and mobile libraries, there were 3,500.
Over the last few years, the consensus that libraries are an essential part of national life has been eroded. The coalition government’s cuts to council funding resulted in 337 library closures; those that did survive reduced their opening hours. Even Birmingham’s swanky £189m library, which opened in 2013, announced earlier this year that it would cut its opening hours and lay off staff. Now the new government is proposing a further 10 per cent cut to council budgets and libraries are likely to bear the brunt. Organisations such as Speak Up for Libraries have sprung up. Alan Bennett and Zadie Smith have said they could not have become writers without libraries. Ed Vaizey, the minister in charge of libraries, is legally obliged to maintain a “comprehensive and efficient” service, but he has had little to say about the closures.
Why are libraries targets? Council leaders point to a dramatic decline in their use. In 1980, 650m books were borrowed; that number has now halved. Over the last 10 years, the number of active borrowers has fallen from 15m to fewer than 10m. The decline began before the cuts, and technology is mostly the culprit. You can buy books cheaply online and many school set texts are also free to access. Wikipedia and Google have made reference books largely obsolete. Anyone wanting to steal music or films need not go to the trouble of borrowing discs and burning them onto their computer—a staple part of teenage life in the 90s. Given this radical change, what is the purpose of libraries now?
“In the medieval era, the core purpose of the library to preserve knowledge began to conflict with its obligation to share it”
Answers can be found in The Meaning of the Library, a collection of essays that traces their history from the ancient world to the present day and the ideas and ideals that have sustained them over the centuries. The first recorded public library was a despot’s vanity project. As the classicist Edith Hall tells us in the opening essay, Clearchus of Heraclea was a student of Plato in Athens who, when he became the governor of a province near the Black Sea, built a library to “avoid the accusation that he lived in a cultural backwater.” Knowledge is power but so is the projection of knowledge. Alexander the Great knew this better than most and in 331, after being visited by Homer in a dream, he decided to build a grand library in the Egyptian city named for him. The Library of Alexandria demonstrated the ruler’s imperial power and also preserved and disseminated the great works of antiquity. The library’s destruction has long been regarded as a powerful moral fable: a place of tolerance and cosmopolitanism ravaged by the ignorant. No one knows who brought down the Library of Alexandria, but the accused parties include Julius Caesar, anti-pagan Christians and marauding Arabs.
In the medieval era, the core purpose of the library to preserve knowledge began to conflict with its obligation to share it. This led to the birth of that much-derided figure: the prissy librarian. In his essay, Andrew Pettegree tells us that the Renaissance library in Europe was a busy, chatty place, where people went to show off as much as to read. Only at the end of the 16th century did the library begin what he calls its “long descent into silence,” as librarians become concerned with protecting books from human contact. When Thomas Bodley began his collection at Oxford in 1598, he made the readers swear an oath. As well as enjoining “modesty and silence,” he made them promise not to “steal, change, make erasures, deform, tear, cut, write notes in… wear away or deteriorate any book or books.” It is a wonder that anyone felt able to breathe in the presence of the books, let alone touch the pages.
In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980), a postmodern detective novel set in a monastic library, the librarian is a sadist who kills to prevent the monks reading Aristotle’s lost book on comedy. Librarians in the 19th century did not go as far as this, but they did regard libraries as instruments of social control. The rules for Carlisle Library stated its mission as encouraging the “advancement in morals, manners and taste.” At the time, circulating libraries were thought to be spreading scurrilous and seditious literature to the masses—especially women. In 1819, a librarian at Uxbridge Library in Middlesex ordered in a copy of Byron’s Don Juan. When the other librarians found out, they were outraged and withdrew the poem, citing its “impropriety and licentious nature.” Through history, libraries have always been the site of arguments over taste and value—what to select and what to reject—with a censorious spirit battling an anarchic one.
“In May this year, a student confessed to having sex with his girlfriend on the upstairs floor of Cardiff’s Bute Library. He told an online student newspaper that he did in order to get ‘lad points.'”
By the end of the century, libraries had become increasingly open to women. As the poet Robert Crawford tells us in his essay, by 1900 more women were working as librarians—or “literary handmaidens,” giving birth to the cliché of the repressed but secretly voracious female librarian. In 20th-century films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Beauty and the Beast, the library becomes the site of actual romantic encounters—or fantasies about them. In his creepy poem “Administration,” the head of Hull University Library Philip Larkin confesses to clocking those “girls you have to tell to pull their socks up / And those whose pants you’d most like to pull down.” Bolder types try it for real. In May this year, a student confessed to having sex with his girlfriend on the upstairs floor of Cardiff’s Bute Library. He told an online student newspaper that he did in order to get “lad points.” In Roman times, Edith Hall tells us, libraries were housed in public baths, where a reader bored with Seneca or inspired by Ovid could procure a woman for sex.
There have been many different kinds of library in history, but the common thread has been the ideal of preserving and spreading knowledge. Nowadays, when the internet is replicating that job with amazing efficiency, what is the purpose of having a physical space with shelves and codex books? The answer cannot be backward-looking or nostalgic. In his excellent 2014 report into libraries for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, William Sieghart championed modern libraries as “safe, non-judgemental, flexible spaces, where citizens of all ages can mine the knowledge of the world for free, supported by the help and knowledge of the library workforce.” He noted that they are especially important for the deprived: in England, while only a third of the population visits libraries, in poor areas that figure rises to 50 per cent. For those who do not grow up with a culture of reading at home, borrowing books or e-books can offer a lifeline. Libraries are being refashioned into community centres with children’s play areas, book groups, computer literacy classes and free online access for the six million adults who don’t have the internet at home. A library in the Westfield shopping centre in west London doubles as a job centre. In order to survive, the library has rightly diversified—even if that means that the golden rule of silence is now impossible to impose.
The spread of community-run libraries may help too. Where the state has retreated, local residents have been stepping up in partnership with private organisations. After Kensal Rise Library was closed, local campaigners reached an agreement with Brent Council: the Victorian building would be sold to a property developer to turn into flats, but the ground floor would remain a library, to be run by the Friends of Kensal Rise. Margaret Bailey, who leads the group, says that by next spring she hopes to open a refurbished community library. She told me she was proud of the “strong, cohesive” power of the community. “People still want libraries,” she added. “A place that has a reverence for books or for information. And sharing that with other people—doing that collaboratively—never goes out of fashion.”
The future of the library is as a community hub with greater involvement from local residents. As Sieghart says, a lack of free wifi and poor computer facilities put off young people. He was also right that they should emulate coffee shops with comfortable sofas and a more relaxed atmosphere—as long as they retain a quiet space for study. In Swiss Cottage, north London, the library is attached to a swimming pool and leisure centre—just like its counterpart in the Roman world. A place to exercise the body and the mind: it’s an appealing combination.