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
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…