By: Lucy Mangan
Few victims of austerity have been so fiercely mourned as libraries. If they are to be revived, a recent report argues, they must look down the High Street to Starbucks. Can that approach change a writer’s beloved childhood sanctuary for the better?
I started coming to Torridon Road Library in Catford, south-east London with my book-loving father when I was four or five. My parents still live in my childhood home, five minutes’ walk from Torridon, and Dad still visits the library every week. But until today I hadn’t been back since I took my GCSEs nearly – God help me – a quarter of a century ago.
Torridon is the sort of library – small, beloved, attuned to the needs of the neighbourhood – that most people would agree we need more of, but which recent local authority cuts have made rarer than ever. Accordingly, it seems like a good place to settle down quietly and read the Independent Library Report, a recently published set of proposals for how those cuts might be mitigated. From the outside, only two things have changed since I shook the exam-room dust off my shoes: automatic doors have been installed behind the heavy oak originals (which now stand open all day) so that all may enter easily and not have to wait for a strong young man to happen past and help them get in; and the bit on the left that once housed the silent study room has been demolished and replaced with a two-storey children’s centre.
Inside, the lovely polished parquet floor has been mostly covered with inoffensive but unmistakably municipal carpet, and the space has been slightly reconfigured by the removal of two walls. Computers and automatic loan/return stations, a sofa and a loo have been added. The long oak table in the children’s section has gone and the hardback pony books replaced by paperback vampire romances.
But the bones of the place I remember are still there. The beautiful dome that I had no idea then was probably an homage to the British Library’s famous reading room is still intact, and comfortable seats are still clustered for long reading stints in the light-filled area beneath. Elsewhere, the high windows bordered with amber-coloured glass that for some reason used to fascinate me more than the dome are also untouched. It is not silent, but it has what Jeanette Winterson recalled her childhood haunt, Accrington Public Library, having: “a sense of energetic quiet.”
I sit, as I used to, next to one of the splendidly chunky, needlessly curlicued cast-iron “school” radiators (I knew the word “Victorian” then, but not that it could describe even heating apparatus). Opposite me is 17-year-old Hannah Akinfala, a student at a local state school who is revising for her A-levels here “because at home is my bed and my TV and I am drawn to both those things! And I’ve got two brothers, who bring friends over and get quite rowdy.” At weekends, she’s in here; during the week, she uses her school library (“They call it a learning resource centre. Which pretty much is a library”) and every day after school goes to Lewisham’s big central library to work (“if I don’t daydream”) until it closes.
Impressed and chastened, I open up my laptop, connect to the free Wi-Fi and start reading the report. It was commissioned by culture minister Ed Vaizey to investigate the current state and possible future of libraries – which is either brave or breathtakingly hypocritical, depending on your feelings about the local authority cuts imposed by his government, which have led to the closure of 324 libraries, the handing over of 400 more to volunteers, and the loss of 6,000 staff jobs since 2011.
The report’s recommendations include setting up a task force to unify and disseminate best-practice guidelines among the 4,000 or so public libraries in the UK, which are run by 151 different library authorities, to stop duplications of effort and benefit from other people’s inspirations and economies of scale. “At the moment,” says the report’s author, entrepreneur and publisher William Sieghart, “ there can be a great inequality of offering. There can be brilliant, amazing things happening at one library, and then, a mile down the road, it’s the 1970s. Larkin land.”
The government has agreed to pay for the taskforce, but not yet for anything else. Funds are needed for improvements, such as installing free Wi-Fi in the one in three libraries that still don’t have it (all Lewisham’s libraries do – on my visit I see one person doing some fairly panicked Christmas shopping, another researching a holiday with a librarian’s help, a man watching the racing and another looking up mature student placements), for creating a national stock catalogue and for other measures designed to make libraries more useful, popular and high-profile.
More contentiously, the report suggests that libraries need to broaden their remit and appeal by delivering more services (such as small business advice, as they do in Northamptonshire, or forming partnerships with local GPs to provide health advice, which is starting to happen in York and Devon) and transforming themselves into “community hubs” rather than simple book-lending centres. And that they do so in a “retail-standard environment” that includes cafes, so as to entice the people who would otherwise do their Wi-Fi-ing and reading in the Costas and Starbucks down the road.
“Oh GOD,” say all of us who instinctively recoil from the notion of modernity, commerce and especially, y’know, modern commerce. “Must we?”
Yes, says Sieghart, we must. Because for the most part “we” are not those who actually use libraries, let alone depend on them. According to the report, 35% of people in England use their local libraries, rising to 50% among poorer and immigrant groups. “The [socioeconomic] AB group, who run the country and the media, don’t use libraries. They do not understand how vital they are, or how many social problems they deal with. I remember one man who kept on coming up and asking for help with his housing while I was talking to the librarian, and she said: ‘Start looking through that shelf over there and I’ll be with you in a minute,’ and he said: ‘No, you don’t understand – I can’t read.’ As a middle-class professional from London, this was amazing to me.” Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust, adds: “It’s vital to remember that for the majority of users libraries aren’t a comfortable, soft, ‘extra’ thing. It connects them to services, keeps them from isolation and is often actually a social lifeline.”
At Torridon, 46-year-old Trisha Johnson is passionately grateful to the library staff who taught her how to use a computer when she and her brother were made redundant after 15 years of employment. “They have been blinding,” she says. “So patient and helpful. I’ve just stayed with them ever since.” She’s here picking up another batch of eight books – thrillers and ghost stories for her, and some wartime romances for her mother, who finds walking difficult. She has recently been re-employed by her old firm. “I read more in the morning now than in the evening because the shifts I’m on mean I fall asleep then! The amount of books I get through, I’d never be able to afford to buy them. I’d be lost without the library now.”
Resistance to change has dogged public libraries almost from the beginning. At first, for example, they all employed the closed-access system, with most books kept in stacks and brought out as needed and requested. Enraged pamphlets were written and distributed by protesters when Clerkenwell library adopted the first open-access system (a “safeguarded” version, librarian James Duff Brown assured all) in 1894, half a century after public libraries began, and bitter arguments about it persisted until the 1930s. Similar outcries greeted the gradual evolution of libraries’ traditional layout. Most were originally set up with a centrally supervised reading room for serious students (implicitly male), a “magazine room” for women (implicitly middle-class), a “conversation” room for men (middle-class, but less scholarly than the reading-roomers), a newspaper room (effectively for working-class men) and a borrowers’ lobby open to all for brief lending and returning transactions, often via a hatch above the counter. Whenever restrictions were loosened, or rooms were merged or done away with altogether, there were vociferous objections. Today’s anti-hubbers may come to look as foolish as those 19th-century segregationists and pamphleteers do to us.
But if part of the recoil from the idea of latte-fuelled hubs is occasioned by an unthinking mixture of snobbery and sentimentality (The old oak table! My pony books!), part of it is also comes from a concern that the essential function of a library is being lost; that the peace and quiet, the unspoken privileging of seeking knowledge for its own, uncommercialised sake will be drowned beneath the bustle of coffee drinkers, online gamers and business, legal and health advisors invading the readers’ temples.
But the changes we object to are superficial, says Ciara Eastell, president of the Society of Chief Librarians. “Libraries are still fundamentally about equality of access, reading, information and learning. You can reinterpret that and modernise sensitively, according to local needs.” Douglas goes further: “The idea that education should be uncomfortable is slightly misplaced. A nice, warm destination for families, children and adults that can merge education and entertainment makes it something you want to take part in. Many people’s aspirations these days are wrapped up in their consumer experiences, so it becomes important to benchmark other things to those experiences to compete and win.” Hard reality, then, must trump soft (media) sentiment. For Eastell and Douglas – and for me, as my day working in Torridon wears on, with the noise never rising to disruptive levels despite a constant churn of visitors and activities – the loss of peace and quiet is greater in theory than in practice.
The great unknown, of course, is whether the government will pay to implement any of the report’s recommendations apart from the taskforce (a so-far unspecified sum). Sieghart is “hopeful” that Wi-Fi funding will come in the new year. As well it should, when you think how much librarians effectively subsidise various government departments by offering free help to people trying to access their services. At the moment Torridon is dealing with an influx of older users who need to renew their freedom passes online.
You don’t need to be a Marxist or a conspiracy theorist to see that it is rarely in a government’s interests to educate its citizens more than absolutely necessary, or to encourage questing minds. The Public Libraries Act 1850, from which all our public libraries and relevant legislation descend, was itself part of the liberal-driven body of reforming legislation designed to cope with the utterly changed world after the industrial revolution. Even then, the Tories forced a number of compromises before the bill could pass (including a halfpenny-in-the-pound cap on the rate increase to fund the founding of libraries, and a proviso that this could only be spent on buildings, not on books), and local authorities were not quick to seize the opportunity. By 1867, only 27 authorities had adopted the legislation. It wasn’t until 20 years later, as part of the national explosion of spirit that attended Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, that the idea really took off. Seventy-seven libraries were established in that year alone, and in the two decades after that, libraries became the pet projects of philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie (660 of whose 2,509 foundations were in Britain and Ireland), John Passmore Edwards (24 here) and Henry Tate, who set up many of his libraries in the nearby south London boroughs of Brixton, Streatham and Battersea. Torridon itself was donated by the owner and developer of the surrounding estate, Archibald Corbett, in 1907 – the same year Carnegie founded what would become Jeanette Winterson’s childhood lifeline in Accrington.
Those days of reforming zeal motivated by concern for the working populace and social stability, and supplemented by individual largesse, have gone. Sieghart himself says that libraries are facing “a Beeching moment”: more and more are disappearing, and larger and larger tracts of the population are going unserved and becoming isolated; if things continue like this, it will soon no longer be possible for libraries to function as a network at all.
And that would be such a waste – a huge, unnecessary, immoral waste. By the end of my day at Torridon, and after seeing how much libraries do to promote education and reading, give strength to the vulnerable and power to the disempowered – “the best to the most”, as the old Arts Council motto had it – I’m torn between being thrilled by the possibilities and convulsed with fear at the thought of how little the government seems to care about any of it.
As I leave Torridon, two new people arrive and settle down in the comfortable chairs under the dome. One has a paperback, the other a magazine. The library closes at dusk, but for now light still floods in.
from: The Guardian