It is one of the mysteries of human endeavour that a Golden Age is only recognised when it has passed. Like happiness, it appears in the rearview mirror. When it is in full swing, insiders are oblivious, but with hindsight, what seemed like the usual grind and turmoil can be seen as a halcyon period of grace, forevermore to be talked of with wonder and nostalgia.
In the heyday of newspapers, for instance, journalists were too busy chasing stories, meeting deadlines and creating headlines to realise they were enjoying the darling buds of May. Not for a moment did they consider that autumn, and indeed winter, would soon be on their heels.
The same is true for libraries. For an all-too brief period – less than half a century – the business of gathering and navigating books and information for the public good was elevated from an unqualified amateur position to a profession. As a result, the library service was finally accorded the respect and resources commensurate with its place as one of the engines of any civilisation that aspired to being cultured. Between the late 1950s and 1990s, libraries became synonymous with the post-war political will for all citizens to have the means by which freely to be informed, entertained and intellectually nourished.
Among their many qualities, librarians are so well trained they can direct readers to the most authoritative sources on any subject, in print or digital form. Not only this, but they can advise, for example, on which entries in the Encyclopaedia Britannica to treat with caution. Needless to say, such knowledge is not aquired overnight. It can, however, be lost alarmingly rapidly. Whether through intent, negligence or ignorance, Scottish libraries are now as mortally endangered as those in the south. When the SRB learned of the library authority in England whose online catalogue directs users to Amazon if the book they want is not available, there was dismay, but not surprise. The commercialisation of information, the assumption that everybody can afford to buy books, or access prime online sources, is a disgraceful flouting of the original promise of public libraries: that there should be no charge for knowledge and entertainment.
Libraries’ guardian angel, Andrew Carnegie, hoped to bring books directly to the people, whatever their class or income. When Edinburgh heard this idea, however, it baulked. Reluctant to implement the Public Libraries Act, despite Carnegie’s sweetener of £25,000, it was the last city in Scotland to do so. The industrialist doubled his offer, which did the trick, and in 1887 he laid the foundation stone of Central Library on George IV Bridge.
One can imagine his response if he were to learn of the current travails of this once magnificent institution. Last month, Edinburgh City’s councillors – clearly of a similar breed as Carnegie encountered – announced plans to close the library on Monday and Wednesday mornings, drastically cut its opening hours, and reduce its mobile service. For some years now staff have been steadily departing through redundancy, and significantly more such losses are impending.
This treatment would be shocking enough given that this is among Scotland’s most prestigious libraries. That it is in the world’s first City of Literature, however, makes such an attitude incomprehensible. A plaque on the entrance reads: ‘Central Library is proud to be at the heart of Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature’, yet there has been no outcry either from this body or from other literary organisations within the capital. Thus, while authors have been quick to champion the library service country-wide, some speaking out specifically in Edinburgh Central’s defence, the silence on other fronts has been telling.
If these cuts go ahead, how can Edinburgh justify its UNESCO title? Surely it is now in danger of being stripped of this badge of honour, and all the benefits and status it confers? We would urge the council, before ratifying these indefensible proposals, to consider the long-term consequences of tarnishing one of its civic jewels, whose influence and stature add immeasurably to the city’s lustre.
Asked by schoolchildren why his government allowed libraries to be closed, David Cameron replied that technology meant we no longer needed libraries. Yet in what could be called our Plutonium Age of fake news, not to mention the oceans of online material to be fished in search of trustworthy sources, the wisdom and experience of librarians are as important as ever – arguably even more so. With an education system struggling to meet its obligations, and ever more pupils leaving school without the qualifications to advance in life, is it not myopia of the most self-defeating kind to close libraries, reduce their hours, and downgrade and dispense with the staff who run them? This might not be, as Ford Madox Ford would have it, the saddest story we have ever heard, but it comes close.