In defence of libraries

US-based readers: please forgive the nakedly UK-centric nature of this post, though I imagine the sentiment is just applicable over on your side of the pond.

Futurismic veterans may remember that, prior to going freelance full time, yours truly used to work in libraries. But I loved libraries long before I worked in them – in fact, I loved libraries pretty much as soon as I knew of their existence. If you love books, how can you not love libraries?

I’m not going to open a debate here about whether or not there’s a genuine need for the austerity measures being introduced by the UK government at the moment; I’m not versed enough in the ways of economics to make an argument based on anything other than my own instinctive reactions and political leanings. Times are hard; I only have to look out of my window at the long line of “To Let” signs on the shops in the street where I live to see that. The country’s accounts need balancing, without a doubt.

But gutting public library provision, while seductively easy for media-wary local governments under pressure from Downing Street, is a choice that hits the most needy at their time of greatest need.

Here’s Philip Pullman taking the podium at

You don’t need me to give you the facts. Everyone here is aware of the situation. The government, in the Dickensian person of Mr Eric Pickles, has cut the money it gives to local government, and passed on the responsibility for making the savings to local authorities. Some of them have responded enthusiastically, some less so; some have decided to protect their library service, others have hacked into theirs like the fanatical Bishop Theophilus in the year 391 laying waste to the Library of Alexandria and its hundreds of thousands of books of learning and scholarship.

[ He’s not kidding; someone linked me to the 2011/2012 budget plans for Portsmouth, my long-term hometown to which I’m returning in a few months, and they’ve gone through the library service like a scythe through a cornfield. It’s harder for me to watch than for others, of course, because I know the names and faces behind those post titles and salaries; I know the years spent studying for a qualification that opens the door to a job you’d never take if chasing money was your prime career motivation; I know the years spent fighting similar attempts at reducing provision, and the determination to provide despite the steady erosion of funds. I know the gallows humour of an industry where the writing has been on the wall for years; I know the genuine grief of people who’ve spent their lives working for an ideal that shaped their own childhoods seeing that ideal written off as a red column on a balance sheet by accountants who earn far more than the jobs they’re suggesting be axed. And sure, yeah, someone somewhere can say that about pretty much every threatened service on the list. So maybe they should. We seem to have forgotten that They are supposed to work for us; They, of course, forgot that long ago, if they ever believed it at all. ]

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.

And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?

Somewhere in Blackbird Leys, somewhere in Berinsfield, somewhere in Botley, somewhere in Benson or in 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 of the republic of reading. Only the public library can give them that gift.

Pullman and myself are probably preaching to the choir here, but nonetheless: the problem council beancounters have with libraries is that the social capital they produce doesn’t appear on spreadsheets. All they see is expenditure, a hole into which money is poured. They don’t see the benefits flooding outward: the gifts that Pullman is talking about, as well as the simpler (and yes, not so book-related) gift of a quiet space to retreat from the world outside that libraries provide for many of the most vulnerable and impoverished members of society. The ability to provide those gifts has withered over the years as acquisition budgets have been whittled away, buildings undermaintained until there’s “no other valid cure” but to sell them off… and with less books available in less locations, borrowing rates inevitably drop, and are then held up as proof positive that money spent on libraries is wasted. “Look, less people use them every year!” Well, of course; you’ve made them less usable. Bravo, you.

Pullman again:

I’m not praising the public library service for money. I love the public library service for what it did for me as a child and as a student and as an adult. I love it because its presence in a town or a city reminds us that there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about, things that have the power to baffle the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism, things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight.


Leave the libraries alone. You don’t know the value of what you’re looking after. It is too precious to destroy.

An anarchist aguing in favour of a fundamentally socialist institution like public libraries may seem inconsistent, and perhaps it is, if one assumes that anarchism (or any other political philosophy) is monolithic and unchanging across all of its adherents. I’m an anarchist because I believe in the power and ability of ordnary people to build a functioning society without the need for the guiding hand of career politicians whose first love is the party line. Until such a day as control has been wrested peacefully from the weasels in expensive suits, the best thing we can do is remind them – constantly, loudly – that their job is to enact the will of the people.

In this particular situation, then, I’d ask you – if you’ve ever had a moment of wonder or enlightnement or just plain old peace and contentment in a library, even so much as just once in your life – to tell them in no uncertain terms to take their hands off your libraries, the ones your taxes have paid for. If money’s short, there are plenty of places it could be found without punishing those already suffering the most, simply by making sure that the rates already set were paid by all who owe them: the Square Mile leaps immediately to mind, as do a number of notorious tax havens.

As a nation – and as a planet, to be honest – we’ve become very accustomed to shrugging off the caprice and arrogance of our political classes as one of life’s inevitabilities. Remember, though, that we pay their wages; as such, we can – and should – hold them to account for their work, and sack them for misconduct. Remember this, and remind them.

The libraries are yours. If you don’t fight for them, they’ll be sold off by those who have always been well enough off not to need them. And if you shrug, smile sadly, say that the cuts are terrible but inevitable, then you have fulfilled your own prophecy.

To attempt something is to invite failure;to not attempt something is to ensure failure.

2 thoughts on “In defence of libraries”

  1. I read Pullman’s speech and it inspired me to write my own little bit on my blog about why gutting libraries here in the States (and anywhere, really) is a socio-economic problem.

    But the big thing I think to mention about your post is that this isn’t a UK-centric problem. Your examples are UK-centric, obviously, but we are seeing the same attempts to cut liberally from libraries here in the States and other western states (and, I imagine, some eastern ones) are seeing similar cuts. You don’t hear about the closures of libraries in the States all that often, though, and I suspect the immensity of our geographical space plays a role in that, whereas the UK’s library-closure map (which I saw at Mark C. Newton’s site) looks disturbingly cluttered.

    Regardless, libraries are absolutely crucial for society. I can’t speak for the UK, but in the States our libraries often (though not always) provide more services than access to books, and many of those services are essential to helping people lift themselves out of destitution (you know, like job search seminars and stuff).

    It’s all insanity. Libraries and education are always hit first here, and I guess they’re hit first in the UK too…but good luck seeing us focus our funding away from building things that kill people…

  2. Good article. I had no idea you were an anarchist—your one sentence explanation of why sums it up perfectly IMO. I struggle all too often to explain my views to peers. I don’t necessarily see why libraries or any fundamentally socialist institutions would be anathema to anarchist schools of thought. I find them to be intrinsic to my anarchist views. Indeed, I usually tell people that I’m a “libertarian socialist.” You’re not one of them anarcho-capitalists, are you? But I digress.

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