Today I went to a meeting of the Friends of my local Library, one of the Carnegie buildings. We met in a small neat room in the basement, next to the children’s library. Back in the first half of the last century, the basement held a shooting range for local riflemen.
In the recent years of this century, through the National Lottery, the library was revamped and opened up to more daylight. Now it houses adaptable shelving and rows of well-used computers, although the reference library was lost in the alterations.
The whole interior is painted in the airy lilac with purple accents that are the standard local authority library colours. It is a very pleasant library, yet I can’t help coming back from these meetings - aware of yet another “re-structuring” behind the scenes - that this is an uncomfortable age for our national libraries.
True, this week, a new library was announced, courtesy of the Margaret Thatcher Trust, which may well be a subscribing or closed library. Somewhere else, no doubt, a free local authority library is closing or transforming into a community library.
Although I welcome volunteers and a more open mood in libraries, I know the inspiring expertise - spread too thinly – will fade quickly. Rather like the respected collection of early Victorian children’s literature once held at my local library and now, apparently, lost in the counties archives. Last reported in a cardboard box, somewhere, but now untraceable. Gone with the fairies.
I do not feel the destruction of libraries can ever be a good sign. The ravage of the great libraries of the past - Alexandria, Lindisfarne, St David’s, Leuvain and more - was never the sign of greater tolerance. These libraries were destroyed dramatically with blood, fire and hatred, dramatically and awfully. They were true disasters.
But the current re-structuring and rationalisation of the library service feels like the pettiest, meanest-minded aspect of Englishness. It makes me feel ashamed, knowing that the poor, the old, the out-of work, the students and the immigrants who use the libraries that are most affected.
It goes deeper. Behind the library lies the stock of books available. I enquired, recently, about an expensive academic book on children’s literature. My local library will help by arranging an out-of-county loan for twenty pounds.
Will our library stock eventually only offer the light romances and whodunits once the core of the Boots subscription libraries? Will biographies of recent and current celebrities be the only lives available? More importantly, will more study be impossible unless one joins a major subscription library? Or signs up and pays for an academic course? Will history only be "now" and not "once" or "then"?
I have always loved being in libraries, in using libraries. My first library was one of those ornate late Victorian library that declared Here is Learning. That building, with its green copper dome, is long gone. The replacement, which I am sure is well used and excellent, is now contained within a big new shopping mall. Which, if times get even tougher, is a much simpler space to disappear. Rather like the use of the word “librarian”, that became “learning resources manager” in many local libraries and secondary schools. How convenient.
Excuse this gloomy History Girl post. I love my local library and the people there. But sitting in such a meeting, working out ways to raise money for a notice-board for the railings outside, set my history teeth jangling. Is what I feel the very faintest echo of how it was when only the priests and the rich had access to books?
I also find it impossible to post about tomorrow’s event.
Penny Dolan is the author of A Boy Called Mouse. (Bloomsbury)