A beautiful history

The library I grew up with

When I read Horrible Histories author Terry Deary’s thoughts on libraries on Wednesday, I don’t think I’ve been angrier with an author since I tried to read The Lord of the Rings the first time and there was all that shit about Hobbits. Since then I’ve had several conversations online about it, and this is an informal gathering, really, of thoughts I’ve had and thoughts others have expressed to me when I’ve brought the subject up. So, what I’m saying is ‘sorry if I’m just using your ideas, but I wanted to put everything together’.

The biggest problem is the apparent lack of understanding as to what purpose libraries serve. No, the biggest problem is the ugly libertarian selfishness. No, the biggest biggest problem is that he’s a fucking dick, but I can’t really argue that away. So let’s go back to libraries.

Are libraries there as competitors to bookshops? Have you had to think about the answer to that question? Congratulations, you’ve fallen into his trap. No; the immediate, immutable answer is no.
That was never the point, and never will be the point. Yes, they are a place to borrow books from, for free (though they are of course paid for from taxation so not exactly free), but they are also places of education and study, of community. Libraries now provide internet access – should that be stopped lest it deprive BT or Sky of vital revenue? At 10:30am on a Wednesday morning, my local library hosts a parent and child singing group – cutting the purses of local nurseries, no doubt.

Are libraries on the ascendant, benefiting from the slow death of bricks-and-mortar bookshops with their fancy short-term loans? In their centuries-long history, have public libraries spoiled the trade of the bookseller? No. The choice is not between borrowing from a library or buying from a bookshop – it’s between borrowing from a library and doing without. For all the acquisitive pride behind the foundation of public libraries such as the Bodleian and the patronising paternalism of the Public Libraries Act, the concept is essentially as sound today as it was then – giving those unable or (faced with a choice between a book and a meal) unwilling to pay for books access to literature. For self-improvement, yes, and what is reading a book, any book, if not improving in some way? Yes, even Fifty Shades/Harry Potter/insert book currently looked down upon here. If reading a book does nothing else it gives your brain something to process, a kind of exercise, like mental jogging.

That’s at worst. At best, it educates, it inspires, it informs and it delights. Sometimes all at once. Each book. And a library is filled with books, a box stuffed with human wisdom, imagination and enterprise free to all, open to everyone. That is the concept behind libraries, the concept Terry Deary is attacking. They are not there to take bread from the mouths of starving authors but to feed the minds of those who might otherwise starve.

I look forward to the day I can leave my daughter in the library and browse for something myself, happy to know that she will be going on a private adventure through lands created for her. That she might stumble across a book meant for an older audience, but she will give it a try because there is nothing to stop her, that this might open new worlds. That she can choose, without worrying about cost, a few books each month to take home and read at leisure. I hope that day will come, but the threat to our libraries is real and on our doorstep.

In the time I’ve lived in Walthamstow I’ve seen my nearest library close and read of fights to keep others open. Libraries are being killed off, but is it because, as Deary would have it, their time is over? Is it simple euthanasia or outright murder? And in the years to come, will our descendants look back and think he was right to abet this cull or will be they be shocked that we allowed it to happen, and willingly paid the slaughtermen?

3 thoughts on “A beautiful history”

  1. I also agree but sadly, due to my present occupation as a smallholder, I find that I take ages, nay weeks, to read one 500+ page book and so coming home from our local library with a few books under my arm always resulted in their very late return and fines. I also like to keep a lot of the books I read so that would be theft and the librarian would be very cross with me! However, even in the wilds of the Fens here in Lincolnshire, we still have a very active local library.

  2. Exactly, libraries aren’t just bookshops you borrow from. They’re centres of learning, even if they’re not the British Library, they still serve a broader function than he can apparently perceive.

  3. I agree. He’s also missed the vital bit where libraries own the books that are hard or impossible to buy, the reference sections the books you didn’t know existed until you saw the right bit of the dewey decimal system. The access to the internet for people who otherwise don’t have or need it, the access to local information and history…

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