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30th January 2013

Will the libraries survive?

Cuts have left public libraries struggling to survive. Will they make it? And what will it mean if they don’t?

I once read about a successful writer who didn’t go to university, but instead went to his local library three days a week and read for a full day, from 9 to 5. He felt that after over a decade of this he had received a pretty full and well-rounded education – broader than any he would have received at university, and it had been free. I chose to pay for my ‘higher’, but less broad, education. And I go to my public library, at home in Cambridge, for the wi-fi. Admittedly their book selection is so bizarrely restricted – books on Mozart’s top hits and ‘70s cookery, but no John Irving – that, in the way of the public library, it could only have occurred through the decade-by-decade scattergun accumulation of books.

It has been more than well reported in the last year that the public library has been marked by the budget cuts. The future of our libraries doesn’t look good. And it’s surely not irrelevant that Manchester University has just built a learning ‘space’ for £24 million (a figure worth repeating: 24 million pounds) that contains no books, and no desks for that matter (24 million and they couldn’t spare 50 quid for a desk?). Regardless of the ongoing issues with the building, 50 years ago no self-respecting university would spend that amount on a bookless building. The point is this: the closure of libraries is not just a financial measure, it is necessarily part of much broader cultural trends and processes – and in that, a vacuum of libraries is both symptom and cause.

So how bad do things look for the library? Research conducted in 2012 by the website Public Libraries News and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy reported that around 200 public libraries closed last year, which accounts for around 5% of the total number of libraries in the country. And the trend will continue to increase in 2013, CIPFA reports. The care of public libraries lies with local councils, which are under pressure to reduce budgets by over a quarter in four years. The Independent also reports that spending on libraries was cut by an average of 7.5% this year. In the local area, five libraries have been shut in Bolton and Public Library News cites one proposal under which just two libraries could be left open in the Greater Manchester borough.

Whilst most would agree (except, it seems, the Government) that retaining a public library service is important – amongst whom are big names such as Billy Elliot playwright Lee Hall and author David Almond who have made impassioned pleas for its survival – there seems to be a dislocation between the measures taken to ensure that libraries still seem ‘relevant’ and therefore worth saving, and the reasons we believe them to be worth saving.

Increasingly extreme measures have been taken up in order to garner the attention and foot-traffic libraries need to stay open. The Guardian reports a library in Dalkeith that is the first to offer a free pole-dancing class, and highspeed wifi is now only the minimum requirement in libraries, with more advanced technologies needed to stay ahead. (In Cambridge’s public library this means a strange BFI digital archive cubicle that I’ve never seen anyone go in or out of.)

However, Matt Haig, in an article for the Booktrust’s blog, seems to get to the crux of just why we need libraries, and it’s not for better bandwith: “I see a library as a place of quiet wonder, in a world designed to frazzle us. For me, a library is a book in building form.” This is what the defenders of the library all seem to be saying, a library is not just a building or even just a “book-lending service”, it is a powerful community symbol and antidote to the world around it. But herein lies the problem, a library is not this if it’s a wi-fi hotspot.

Conversely, John McTernan in The Telegraph highlights the dichotomy. Although he argues that “the liberal whingers are wrong – we should shut our libraries”, he ends up pointing to exactly the need for a separation between the different realms of technology and books, as Matt Haig does. McTernan says that libraries have no place, and no purpose, in our Google and Amazonified-era: “Access to information has been transformed by the internet. Google a subject and you can become ridiculously well-informed ridiculously quickly.” But whilst it’s true that you can access information on anything at any time, how ‘ridiculously’ broad will your knowledge basis be from a ‘ridiculously quick’ Google search? Every Internet page has its own agenda, even Google. Books are not ‘live’ in the same way as an Internet page. Of course, a book is not unbiased, but once printed it doesn’t actively seek your time and attention.

So we have to conclude that the webpage needs the continued existence of the printed form. A book, and in Haig’s terms, therefore a library, can (and to some extent must) act as an antidote to the relentless heat-seeking force of the Internet. But only because it is not that.

So the problem is this: libraries are fighting for survival with anything they can get their hands on, including wi-fi hotspots, online databases, and whatever else (as they must do). But this focus actually turns us away from what it is that is important about the library. It erodes our sense of the library as antidote. And it’s caught in this losing game because the library doesn’t have time to steadily prove its worth; it needs to pole-dance its way back into the budget’s favour.

Although I’d sometimes like to, I can’t remain totally hostile to all the many advantages that technology brings. Digital archives? That’s incredible. Free wi-fi? Thank you. But the thing is, we don’t need to if we recognise and  value the two sides as polarities that balance each other out. Unfortunately, I fear that it’s already too late for the library. And just as a library is a symbol, allowing them all to close down is equally symbolic, in a much larger sense.

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