Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Philip Pullman's call to defend 'the republic of reading'

You're probably aware of the rising tide of bewildered rage and campaigning fury across England and certainly in my local region, Oxfordshire, at the prospect of the closing of library branches. In Oxford city alone, Summertown, Headington, Old Marston, Littlemore, Blackbird Leys and Kennington are due to close - and this is to say nothing of branches outside the city. The Council advocates that everybody makes their way to Oxford's Central Library, blithely ignoring those who are strapped for bus fares, strapped for time, struggle to find child care, or are physically disabled.

Or, maybe they won't close them: a poisoned chalice is offered us. Yes, you may keep your branch libraries, on the condition that you run them yourselves. All very well and good in nice bourgeois areas, perhaps less likely in deprived ones. So, er, what if you're struggling to find a book or a resource? Isn't it fairly important to be able to turn to a professional, someone who is fully trained and cognisant with sources, locations and connections? If I pop up to the John Radcliffe Hospital with heart palpitations, do I expect to be treated by somebody who likes reading medical books and once did a first aid course, but doesn't have any other qualification?

The council will of course bleat that they have to cut such services as libraries in order to preserve more necessary services - but this sort of excuse just makes my blood boil. We never seem short of money to send officials on junkets and fact-finding missions, to advertise non-jobs whose descriptions and pay-rates beggar belief. To say nothing of unimaginable expenditure on bank-bailouts and pointless wars.

When I was a child, it was an utter joy to go down to the local village library and work my way along the shelves, reading anything and everything that came my way. I expanded my imagination and my knowledge. I made serendipitous discoveries. One of my dearest friends has been a librarian all her working life - is all her experience, her dedication, her enthusiasm to be devalued in this way?

We all seem to be existing these days in a state of gasping indignation: What? They're planning what? They wouldn't! They mustn't! We sign petitions against selling publicly-owned forests (if you haven't as yet, please do!), and now to save a service which since the nineteenth century has been a source of national pride: check out The Bookseller's Fight For Libraries campaign - go to or to the Fight for Libraries facebook page, or follow them on Twitter - @fight4libraries.

Finally, I urge you to read Philip Pullman's speech, given in Oxford last week, and posted at : it's a wonderfully articulate explosion of indignation, which not only defends libraries but celebrates the power of reading itself. He witheringly condemns the council for its lack of respect: thinking 'the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea', he expresses hate of 'the bidding culture' where all sorts of good causes are forced to compete with one another for limited resources, he talks of his own relationship with libraries, celebrating what goes on 'in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book', and he worries that government and publishers fail to see value in any other than financial terms: 'the only measure is profit'. He reminds us that libraries are a reminder that 'there are things above profit.'

I hope he won't mind my quoting from him: please do read the whole article. Find out what's happening in your locality: libraries are precious. Don't take this erosion of a vital service in our society lying down.


Glynis said...

Living in Cyprus, with no access to English libraries...I can tell my blood boils at this news! I miss a good library, and the cosy feeling it gives me. I cannot imagine the UK without them.

Despite having Internet access, my three children spent hours at Manningtree library. All three valued the support of the librarians. When my daughter told me of the cuts, I was horrified.

Such a shame.

Lorna F said...

It is a shame, Glynis, and I can only hope that all these protests will have some effect. The Victorians who introduced the idea of public access to knowledge and education would be horrified that we're wilfully demolishing a public service like this.