Friday, 20 February 2009
I remember the opening of Roehampton Library. The class above me at primary school went to watch when Noel Streatfield declared the library open. I was so jealous. Surely none of them loved books as I did? Surely none of them had worked their way through all the library copies of Noel Streatfield in Putney Library, a bus ride away. After missing the library opening I wrote to Noel Streatfield and she wrote back - a lovely letter that I treasured for years.
Libraries mattered to me even more then than they do now. Libraries were so many things: they held information and imaginative possibilities; they were warm and friendly; they were staffed by librarians who could recommend books I'd never heard of; they had desks, tables and, in Roehampton, sofas on which I could lounge at full-length, exploring book after book.
Libraries mattered most when I was poor. In Bidford-on-Avon the library was a van which arrived once a week for two hours. It wobbled when I climbed up the stairs to enter it. There were no desks or sofas and very little space. Choice of books was limited: there were never more than three in the poetry section (one was always about Shakespeare) but they changed from time to time. I still lurked there, carrying my small baby daughter in a harness that made it impossible for me to browse the lower shelves. Books were more than life - they were the possibility that things could be different. The world of the imagination is also a place of hope.
In times of crisis and falling incomes local governments focus on what they see as their core tasks: rubbish collection, streets, schools and all the services that councils are required by central government to provide. Libraries - and museums, art galleries, leisure centres, theatres - are facing cuts and closures. But hope too is a necessity. Taking these things away damages the poor more than the rich. It's like putting a lever in the gulf between rich and poor and forcing it to ten times its width.
In The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Frank Owen, the main character, says: “What I call poverty is when people are not able to secure for themselves all the benefits of civilisation; the necessaries, comforts, pleasures and refinements of life, leisure, books, theatres, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food.”
When councils close libraries they deprive the poor of one of the benefits of civilization. They close off imaginative possibilities and stunt lives. If the council burnt books there would be a protest. But books are killed just as surely if they're thrown into landfill, pulped to make motorways, or locked away unread.