RECENTLY a cage-rattling newspaper columnist predicted the demise of public libraries, deeming them past their sell-by date, irrelevant, costly, and as redundant as chimney-sweeps. Her argument – if we may dignify it as such – was twofold. First, fewer people appear to be using libraries. This is based on the number of books borrowed which has been falling for several years. Secondly, there is the general cheapness and easy availability of books. The columnist mentioned purchasing a book (details unrevealed) from Amazon for 90p, as if that was remarkable. It is now possible, she argued, to build one’s personal library for next to nothing. That being the case, what need is there for public libraries?
The question – if not its premise – is worth pondering. To the ancients libraries were not public but private, a badge of one’s social standing and intellectual aspirations. By the late seventeenth century, at least in Scotland, that was changing. Most cities, many towns and select villages could claim to have a library to which its citizens had access. The eighteenth century saw the origin of what was to metamorphose into the National Library of Scotland with the granting of the privilege of legal deposit to the Advocates’ Library.
By the early nineteenth century Sydney Smith was able to declare that for a literary man Edinburgh was “the most eligible situation in the land” because of its “good libraries liberally managed”. Soon legislation was introduced which would make public libraries ubiquitous throughout the country, with more than a little help from Andrew Carnegie. It was a hard-won right and throughout their history libraries in Scotland run by local authorities have often had to scrabble for scant resources and stand with a begging bowl until all that remained of the collective cake was a few, desiccated crumbs.
That notwithstanding, libraries – and librarians – established an enviable reputation. A town without a library is indeed an uncivilised, unthinkable place in which to live. For where there is a library there is hope. For many people growing up in blighted, inward-looking places, a visit to the library offered possibilities, where a boy or a girl could see beyond their immediate circumstances and fuel their ambition. Lest we forget, it was the local library that nourished such disparate spirits as David Livingstone and Jimmy Reid.
The story of libraries throughout the twentieth century was largely one of success, especially in the aftermath of the two world wars. Nothing, not the coming of radio or television or cheap paperbacks, seemed to dent the library’s popularity. On Friday evenings and Saturday mornings queues stretched outside branch libraries as readers – as they were always described – waited to change their books. It was part of the weekend ritual and one of the cornerstones of an intelligent society. Through the library you could educate yourself. It was an open university before the idea of one ever existed.
But in the 1980s something seemed to change. Librarians, smarting from the cuts imposed by the Thatcher government on local authorities, began to transform their libraries into community centres. The old ‘silence’ notices disappeared and librarians no longer uttered ‘quiet’ with the same degree of threat. Worse, books appeared tno more to be the library’s principal raison d’etre. The portion of the cake, which had grown no bigger and, in some cases, much smaller, was further divided to allow the purchase of other media and objects which were deemed essential for public edification and diversion. Thus libraries even offered their patrons – as they were now beginning to be called – the opportunity to borrow such items as umbrellas. We kid you not.
It was around this time that the Adam Smith Institute, a Thatcherite think-tank, proposed the privatisation of public libraries. Who knows what the effect of that would have been had it been deemed a vote winner. As it was, it was regarded even by the free marketeers in government to be unconscionable. It was, though, a narrow escape. But there is no doubt the years that have followed have been difficult for public libraries as they try to cope with the onslaught of the internet and the deluge of information, much of it free. Where once children were taken to the library they are now allowed to languish in their rooms accessing who knows what.
What many of them, with due respect to Harry Potter el al, are not doing is reading, a fact not helped by our education system. A colleague relates with horror how in his first term at secondary school his son – a keen reader – was not introduced to a book – any book – in his English class. Is it any wonder then that libraries are suffering? But that does not mean to say libraries are redundant. On the contrary we need them more now than ever. To compare them, as the aforementioned columnist did, to bookshops, is to demonstrate a profound ignorance. Libraries, free to the public at the point of access, like the National Health Service, remain peerless repositories for human thought and knowledge. Dismiss them and we may as well wipe out our memories.
In the last issue of the SRB the article by Mark Cousins was insensitively edited. Our apologies.