Today has been named Save Our Libraries day. Several hundred libaries across the country are threatened with closure due to public spending cuts, and campaigners have been mobilising in protest.
I fully understand the idea behind shutting libraries rather than cutting other public services. They are only used by a small percentage of the population and they’re not essential in the same way that good quality roads or old people’s homes are. That said, any cuts would be tragic. I use libraries a few times a year. I’ve used them to take out books, CDs and DVDs, as well as for research. They’re great for letting you find books that you want to read but don’t want to buy. Books aren’t cheap. I’ve been put off buying books on many occasions because of the cost. I remember looking at a copy of Gawain and the Green Knight with the intention of buying it, but when I saw it was £8 I put it back. It’s not a big book and there aren’t even any royalties to pay, so how can that price be justified? At a library, though, you can pick up a book that’s different from what you usually read. You wouldn’t buy it, in case you didn’t like it, but at a library that doesn’t matter. You might discover a new author or even a whole genre that you love.
They’re also great for reference books. The internet is wonderful but to use it for research, especially on technical or scientific subjects, can be risky. Books are much more reliable.
Perhaps the best argument in favour of libraries is that they are more important to some people thank others. The elderly, for instance. They provide computers for those without computer access at home. They are centres for the community, where people can find out about local groups and social events. They help keep people connected, to each other and to the local area.
A number of those campaigning to save libraries are authors. Philip Pullman gave a speech at an Oxfordshire campaign meeting which is worth a read if you have time. It’s quite long, though, so here’s an extract that to me, really sums up the importance of libraries:
I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. It must have been about 1957. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don’t know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination. … Somewhere in Blackbird Leys, somewhere in Berinsfield, somewhere in Botley, somewhere in Benson or Bampton, to name only the communities beginning with B whose libraries are going to be abolished, somewhere in each of them there is a child right now, there are children, just like me at that age in Battersea, children who only need to make that discovery to learn that they too are citizens in the republic of learning. Only the public library can give them that gift.