We're all aware that there's enormous anger about councils up and down the land planning to close libraries to save money. No doubt many of you have signed petitions in protest, or joined in mass book-borrowings and similar gestures. Here in Oxfordshire, 20 of the county's 43 libraries stand in peril - I refer you to my post last month about Philip Pullman's passionate speech in defence of the role of libraries (see also Michael Morpurgo in his recent Richard Dimbleby lecture). Of course, there's some pretty forceful correspondence going on in our local newspapers and even though the County Council has now said they will review the situation (Playing for time? Hoping we'll all go away?), I was horrified by the patronising and complacent tone of leader Keith Mitchell in the letters page of The Oxford Times last week. This is what he replied to a certain Dr Diana Sanders: 'I am only sorry that your love of library buildings, collections, reference books and maps does not extend to the human beings - young and vulnerable, old, disabled, with learning disabilities or mental health problems - who will have to endure extra cuts if we were to exempt libraries. No one will die if there are a few fewer libraries in Oxfordshire.'
I'll give you a few moments, to allow your blood to come down from boiling point, shall I?
Where do I start to describe how wrong all of this is? Why does his tone have to be so sneering? He is a public servant, is he not? I'm sure we're all thinking 'No one will die if there are a few fewer overpaid council officials ...'
Why does he claim that to love books and literary resources somehow makes you misanthropic to the degree that you do not care for the poor and needy? Are the two interests mutually exclusive? Does he view all book-lovers as crouched in candlelit studies, poring over precious manuscripts, pince-nez perched in front of beady eyes, while ragged beggars cluster outside our gates, palms outstretched? Are we saying 'Let them eat vellum?'
The cost of libraries and library services is relatively small in the scheme of things. I'm sure I don't need to reiterate what Messrs Pullman and Morpurgo and many others have said about the value of a professionally managed resource of knowledge, about access to all, about the psychological and cultural importance of books, about our nation's need to take pride in our heritage and its duty to help its people to fulfil their potential. Fulfilling potential and meeting needs is not just about disabled access or council social services (which, by the way, are also taking massive hits, including closures of youth centres in Oxfordshire and the Oxford Carers' Centre), but about hearts and minds, about enriching knowledge, awareness, a connection with the past and with each other.
Ironically, Mr Mitchell had picked on the wrong person. Dr Diana Sanders works for the NHS, counselling the terminally ill. She herself has endured a heart and lung transplant. So she knows about health problems and she knows about empathising with others. He has apologised in this week's Oxford Times, but I do think a more prolonged diet of humble pie would do him some good.