On Twitter this week, the writer Neil Gaiman responded to the debate on libraries’ decline. Rejecting claims that libraries were obsolete, he suggested that they are actually “more relevant and useful than they were 30 years ago”. He’s right, and not only because libraries lend books.
Libraries have political, social, emotional and educational relevance. Their history is long and complex. The earliest libraries, based on cuneiform script on clay tablets, date back to 2600 BCE. They recorded mostly business transactions and inventories of goods. Over 30,000 clay tablets from the 2600 year old Library of Ashurbanipal remind us that the Middle East was, for centuries, a global centre of knowledge and education in medicine, art and culture.
In the sixth century, the great libraries of the Mediterranean world were Constantinople and Alexandria. Egypt's Library of Alexandria is the most famous library of Classical antiquity. Dedicated to the Muses, the nine goddesses of the arts, the library was patronised by the Ptolemaic dynasty and a global site of scholarship from the 3rd century BC until the Roman Conquest. Filled with papyrus scrolls, the Library is most famous now for having burned down, resulting in a devastating loss of treasures.
|The Library of Alexandria
In the ancient world, libraries were a means to announce power, status, identity and civic pride; the same drive that was behind the expansion of libraries in the Enlightenment West. This so-called golden age of libraries saw many important European libraries being founded. The British Library was established in 1753 and Chetham's Library in Manchester, said to be the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, opened in 1653. The Mazarine Library and the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève were also founded in Paris and the Austrian National Library in Vienna.
|An aisle of Chetham's Library, Manchester
The principal of libraries being open to the public was increasingly commonplace, reflecting their educational and civil status. Knowledge mattered; to be seen to be knowledgable arguably mattered more. Where once libraries open to the public had chained their books to the desks, the principle of lending libraries provided a means for people to carry that learning into their own homes, providing they had enough literary, space and leisure time.
The Public Libraries Act of 1850 gave local boroughs the power to establish lending libraries, while the Education Act of 1870 expanded literacy. These two moments connected the desire for civic pride to the equally strong desire to educate the working classes, and to encourage their leisure time to be both clean and moral. Libraries represented civility and the pursuit of knowledge for social advance, and for its own sake.
What has changed? Why are libraries no longer seen as crucial to the social fabric, and therefore not worthy of investment? Why have there been such massive cuts to library budgets since 2010?
Leaving aside the social indifference of successive Tory governments, and the wholesale impoverishment of institutions and structures that represent collective interest (the NHS, state schools, care homes), there is no longer any definitive sense of what kind of knowledge matters. In the age of Trump there has been a movement away from intellectual reason towards primitive impulse; we might argue that this precondition allowed Trump's rise, rather than being a direct result of his presidency.
But there are other reasons too, including a lack of financial investment and support. Part of the reason why libraries are supposedly in decline is the growth of digitisation. More resources online, it is argued, provides better access than outdated buildings, with limited books; it also eliminates the problems of access: geographical, economic, physical. But not everyone has access to reliable internet resources. Books and papers and physical objects are critically needed in countries with dodgy internet connections and limited electricity.
Besides, libraries are not just spaces to hold books. They are filled with insightful librarians and curators, who can link you to the source that you need (and even borrow it from other libraries); perhaps not as quickly as Google, but certainly with more humanity.
As a girl growing up in rural Wales, the weekly visit across the border to Shropshire town of Oswestry and its library, gave me hope. Searching the shelves, feeling limitless as my gaze drifted from Mills and Boon to Shakespeare, from Dryden’s poetry to local history, there were options available to me. Potential and places that reached beyond the narrowness of the shelves and the chlorine smell of the nearby municipal pool.
As a lonely child with a difficult family life, I treasured those moments of escape. I loved everything about the routine: the piling up of six books - SIX! - with their tattered and grubby plastic covers, cherry-picked from a dozen different shelves; queuing for the librarian; smiling as she expressed interest (or sometimes shock) in what I was choosing; watching as she flicked through the pages to find the sweet spot and oh the muffled clunk of the date stamp, those were physical moments of bliss.
Carrying that stack home, holding it on my lap as a shield that protected me from the inevitable arguments of the car that backfired, squirrelling it up in my room where I could smell the pages and look at all the different people who had borrowed each book before me - or the joy of being the one single stamp of newness - was a special kind of bliss. I belonged to a community of readers who stretched beyond the narrow, sad confines of my bedroom.
And for me that is the point. Libraries are far more than buildings to hold books. They are pivots of connections between individuals and the world outside; not only in the date stamps that nestle aside one another, but also in a more literal, physical way. Libraries are spaces where anyone can go, to browse, to sit, to read the newspapers they can't afford to buy, to keep warm, to think, to meet other people. And in an age of loneliness this collective, free-to-use space is crucially important, and critically endangered.
Books bring people together, literally, figuratively, physically. When we imagine that libraries aren’t needed, and we allow governments to shut them down on the basis they aren’t viable, or God forbid necessary, we toe a line of individualism that weakens society as a whole.
I don’t use libraries like I did when I was a child, though half the adult population do. I did try, when my own children were younger, and the weekly run to the library to perform those rituals of choosing, carrying, stamping (and inevitably mislaying) are treasured moments of motherhood for me. The moments of drawn out time are a distant memory for me - and no doubt for many, caught up in our technologically driven, imperative age where every second counts, and Amazon Prime has a same day delivery option.
The depressing thing about libraries closing down is that lack of use becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; an ideological sleight of hand by which cut backs appear justified. Deprive public libraries of millions of pounds to buy resources, to fund decent opening hours and enough staff, and people inevitably spend less time there. Create a narrative of decline and obsolescence and libraries become - especially the local, public libraries that sustained me as a child, redefined as an unnecessary and unsustainable expense.
Communities need libraries. Like they need hospitals and schools and roads and utilities. Libraries are spaces of learning and information, yes, but they are also spaces of acceptance and belonging and engagement in ways that are neglected in the 21st century. Many libraries are changing to adapt to the needs of their users; some have knitting circles and board game groups, tea mornings and yoga alongside Harry Potter and Pride and Prejudice. And adaptation may be key to this survival. But don't let people say libraries don't matter. They have never mattered more.
My new book, A Biography of Loneliness will be published in Spring 2019 by Oxford University Press.
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