Tuesday, 10 January 2012

I'm launching the Campaign For Real Libraries

I took this picture in Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, at Christmas. People in Nailsworth have been campaigning to save their library from closure. A court ruled closing the library was illegal, so it's now open a grand total of three mornings and one afternoon a week.

I too am thinking of launching a 'save our library' campaign, though my local library is not under threat of closure. Why, you may wonder? Well, the point is, my local library is crap. I do not say this to insult the staff, who, I have been reliably informed, spend most of their time being reorganised. Which might go some way to explaining why the library is crap. I want to help them save the library from crapness. I shall call this the Campaign for Real Libraries, like the Campaign for Real Ale.

Let me explain. Of this large, city centre library, there are three floors. I can reliably inform you the basement contains the Reserve Stock, otherwise known as 'the books you'd really like to browse through'. The first floor contains (by space used) two-thirds reference library, and one third computers. Now, the reference library is all very well as a quiet place to work/hide/read the newspaper, but much of the information that was previously available as reference is now available online. The computers were provided so people too poor to own a computer could browse the internet. Which is laudable, except now that the feral poor use t'internet to organise looting, probably a little out of date. They are also terrible computers.

On the ground floor, about 20% of space is taken up by the children's library. All well and good. About a further 10% is taken up by the cafe, and a further 10% by the DVD's and videos. Then, in the back if the main library, CD's take up about another 10%. So that leaves about half of the ground floor, or one sixth of the building, for books that you, as a reading adult, can actually borrow.

Should one want to take a book away, to peruse in your own home, your chances are hindered by the fact that you will probably not be able to find it. A while ago I looked for a book by Hannah Arendt. Hannah Arendt was a political philosopher who wrote ground-breaking works on democracy, totalitarianism, bureaucracy and the role of the individual. She is major author of the 20th Century, and not even slightly obscure. Arendt's books had been split up into different sections: law, philosophy, history, biography; as if the lives of the Nazis she investigated had nothing to do with her thoughts on why they might have done it. The specific book I wanted was filed in the law section. Allegedly. After some enquiries, it turned out to be missing.

Next time, I was looking for a book on chaos theory. I didn't have a specific book in mind, just a general popular-science thing which would explain the concept. I couldn't, because I didn't have a specific name or title, and there wasn't a popular science section, only separate sections for physics, chemistry, biology, much of which seemed to be textbooks.

I did manage to find a book on chaos theory (several, actually) in Foyles Bookshop, which has approximately the same floor space.

My next foray did turn up the book I wanted: Charles Dickens 'A Christmas Carol'. But not without a poor librarian running downstairs to find a spare copy in the Reserve Stock. Incidentally, this tale of an investment banker wrestling with the value of compassion versus money, was filed in the children's section.

I love books. I often want to read things that I don't want to keep. I think the exchange of knowledge, and being able to educate yourself, independently and in your own time, is an amazing and wonderful thing. When libraries were created, they were intended as a way of spreading knowledge to everyone.

What annoys me is that libraries seem to have forgotten this. Over the last decade or so, they have become a way for local authorities to deliver targets, which are not about wonder or mystery or education or anything like that. There has been an unspoken assumption that anyone middle-class or educated, or even really literate, can buy their own books. Libraries have been seen as an extension of social services: a place for the homeless to hang out during the day, a place for OAPS and young mums, a place for immigrants who may not speak English to access information.

Now, I'm not saying that these people should be excluded from libraries, I'm just saying that when a service stops being a service for everyone, and becomes a service for 'Those Who Need Help', which in the general public's mind is filed next to 'People Who Smell', then the regular people, the people who could afford to buy a book if they really wanted but who would probably prefer to borrow it, just stop using the service. They buy the book, or more likely just watch X-Factor instead. The next result is that somebody at the Council notices that not many people use the library. And then a round of budget cuts comes, and they think its a good idea to close it, like in Nailsworth.

If you live and Bristol, and have recieved one of the Council's helpfully coloured 'Our City' Magazines, in which they try and explain themselves to a skeptical electorate, you might (not) have noticed that on the budget page, under 'Corporate Services' it says that the Council plans to save £800,000 by 'merging customer services points with libraries'. So that means, again, less books and more benefit advisors.

So this is why I we need a campaign for real libraries. Based on three simple principles:

1) Libraries should be for everyone. Not just losers.

2) Libraries should be full of books people can borrow. Not films, music, computers, cafes or City Council help points. Books, books, and more books. Because books are amazing.

3) To maintain the highest possible standards, all librarians should be forced to wear cardigans. I feel this will stop the rot.

Does anyone else want to join? I need a treasurer and secretary.

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