I was driving to work the other day thinking about the library closures in Lewisham and around the country and began to feel angry about it. For a moment I checked myself: surely there were other cuts that should bother me more – why get worked up about this in particular? Then it struck me that I was being silly. I spend a lot of time being pissed off about things being done to other people. For once I was feeling pissed off about something being done to me. It felt good and right to be pissed off on my own behalf. I let it happen.
I spent many hours in the library of the village where I grew up, and took hundreds of books out. For a long time I went there nearly every weekend – and would always have finished books to change. I read a lot. My mother would sometimes drop us off at the library when she went to do shopping. It was safe space to her, except in one sense she never understood: it was the anti-dote to the limited, controlled intellectual environment in which I was raised.
I read mostly fiction, and mostly to escape, but in doing so I read many things my parents would have hated. I loved it. Over time my reading increased until the village library was no longer enough and I began consuming the contents of the library in the town where I went to school. I frequently withdrew and read ten books in a week. Think about that: ten books a week. Even if my parents had been earning full salaries they could never have afforded a £70-£100 a week book habit. Anyway they would never have approved of half the books I read (some of them hidden behind other ‘approved’ books as I sat in the sitting room reading). I also bought books at charity shops of course, but that was when they cost between 10p and 50p. Now the pricing in charity shops has been professionalised and that avenue is shut down for most children. There are only libraries left.
I am an adult now and earn enough money to buy books. But I still cannot afford all the books I want. I still look for new things in the library. I still order rare books through the national network of libraries. Libraries were my great comfort when I felt at home nowhere else. They are still my place of first resort when I want to try something new, and the last resort when I need books I cannot obtain elsewhere. I still love to wander round them. They are free spaces where simply reaching out and taking a book can open a whole new world. If I have not always felt at home in my own town, or my own country, I have always felt at home in libraries. You might say that I am a product and member of the great republic of public libraries.
So when politicians and bureaucrats attack libraries, they are attacking where I come from. The closure of libraries feels personal. It is personal. And of course when I go to the local libraries I see that other kids use them now, perhaps kids like me, whose other connections to the world are strangled. Kids and teenagers need libraries particularly. In an authoritarian-by-default world, libraries and the internet are the only places they can gain some control over their own development, and many kids’ internet connections are tightly controlled, or at least their histories are viewable by the parents. Children and teenagers still use libraries. So do pensioners, the unemployed, mothers looking after kids alone. As well as working people like me who are always looking for something new. Libraries are free space for everyone, but they are most of all free space to the people who really need it: the lonely, the harassed, those without money, those who need to escape, those who want more from life than what they have been offered.
And all over the country they want to close libraries down. ‘They’? Who are ‘they’? That is the question they want to vex us. As with all the Local Authority cuts, the councillors hold up their hands and say ‘It isn’t us – blame the government for forcing us to make these cuts’. And the government holds up its hands and says ‘We never ordered libraries to close – it’s a Local Authority decision’.
This is the question they want to vex us. Avoidance of blame is a key political skill. But the question does not trouble me in the slightest, I have an answer that satisfies me. I blame the government for making cuts and lying that they are necessary. I blame the Local Authorities for implementing them with barely a murmur. I blame the civil servants who did the cost-benefit analysis on libraries. I blame the Councillors who voted for it. I even blame the administrators who are implementing it. I blame anyone who is involved who didn’t stand up and walk out the room when they realised what their actions meant.
They want to claim too that they aren’t shutting libraries, they are just putting them in community hands. Without money. This is the government’s whole ‘localism’ strategy encapsulated. Give ‘control’ to local communities, take away the money. It will destroy the libraries – except perhaps in affluent areas that can support them from disposable cash – and they know it will destroy them. They don’t care, or not enough to stop it, which is the only caring that matters.
When you close down libraries, you shut off the oxygen to developing minds. You close down the only space where people have freedom of thought not just in theory but in fact. It is a crime against the right to free thinking and a crime against those people who need them. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and we should attach it to everyone involved. The closure of libraries at this point in time is not a ‘natural’ process that we have to accept, but rather than the result of a certain type of politics and economics in which we should refuse to take part.
I want to stop libraries being closed. I think we should stop libraries being closed. If it cannot be stopped, then as far as I’m concerned, it cannot and should not be forgiven.