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Posted by Kate, August 14, 2011

Library closures – a view from Caitlin Moran

We’ve written about library closures and the need to support our libraries before on the Nosy Crow blog. Several of the authors that I have had the privilege of publishing have been vocal about this issue, including Julia Donaldson and Philip Pullman. There are, of course, other powerful advocates for libraries, from author and children’s reading campaigner Alan Gibbons to Alan Bennett.

Caitlin Moran (author of the funny, touching and pretty sensible adult book, How To Be a Woman, whose column is the reason I buy The Times on a Saturday) used her weekly column in yesterday’s The Times Magazine, to condemn library closures. I think it’s a strong, personal and witty piece though there are bits I don’t 100% agree with. It’s reproduced here with her permission (it’s behind a paywall).

“Home-educated and, by 17, writing for a living, the only alma mater I have ever had is Warstones Library, Pinfold Grove, Wolverhampton.

It was a low, red-brick box on grass that verged on wasteland, and I would be there twice a day – rocking up with all the ardour of a clubber turning up to a rave. I read every book in there – not really, of course, but as good as; when I’d read all the funny books, I moved on to the sexy ones, then the dreamy ones, the mad ones, the ones that described distant mountains, idiots, plagues, experiments.

I sat at the big table and read all the papers; on a council estate in Wolverhampton, the broadsheets were as incongruous and illuminating as an Eames lamp.

The shelves were supposed to be loaded with books – but they were, of course, really doors; each book-lid opened was as exciting as Alice putting her gold key in the door. I spent days running in and out of other worlds like a time bandit or a spy. I was as excited as I’ve ever been in my life in that library, scoring new books the minute they came in; ordering books I’d heard of, then waiting, fevered, for them to arrive, like they were Word Christmas.

I had to wait nearly a year for Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire to come; even so, I was still too young to think it anything but a bit wanky, and abandoned it 20 pages in for Jilly Cooper.

But Les Fleurs du Mal, man! In a building overlooked by a Kwik Save, where the fags and alcohol were kept in a locked metal cage lest they be stolen! Simply knowing that I could have it in my hand was a comfort in this place so very, very far from anything extraordinary or exultant.

Everything I am is based on this ugly building on its lonely lawn – lit up during winter darkness, open in the slashing rain – which allowed a girl so poor she didn’t even own a purse to come in twice a day and experience actual magic: travelling through time, making contact with the dead (Dorothy Parker, Charlotte Bronte, Richard Brautigan, Truman Capote).

A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate “need” for “stuff”.

A mall – the shops – are places where your money makes the wealthier wealthy. But a library is where the wealthy’s taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary instead. A satisfying reversal. A balancing of the power.

Last month, after protest, an injunction was granted to postpone library closures in Somerset. In September, both Somerset and Gloucestershire councils will be the subject of a full judicial review over their closure plans. As the cuts kick in, protesters and lawyers are fighting for individual libraries like dog-walkers pushing stranded whales back into the sea.

A public library is such a potent symbol of a town’s values; each one closed down might as well be 6,000 stickers plastered over every available surface reading: “WE CHOOSE TO BECOME MORE STUPID AND DULL”.

Although I have read a million words on the necessity for the cuts, I have not seen a single letter on what the exit plan is: what happens in four years’ time, when the cuts will have succeeded, and the economy gets back to “normal” again. Do we then – prosperous once more – go round and re-open all these centres, clinics and libraries, which have sat, dark and unused, for nearly half a decade?

It’s hard to see how – it costs millions of pounds to re-open deserted buildings, and cash-strapped councils will have looked at billions of square feet of prime real estate with a coldly realistic eye.

Unless the Government has developed an exit strategy for the cuts, and has insisted that councils not sell closed properties, by the time we get back to “normal” again, our Victorian and postwar and Sixties red-brick boxy libraries will be coffee shops, Lidls and pubs. No new libraries will be built to replace them. These libraries will be lost forever.

And in their place, we will have a thousand more public spaces where you are simply the money in your pocket rather than the hunger in your heart. Kids – poor kids – will never know the fabulous, benign quirk of self-esteem of walking into “their” library and thinking: “I have read 60 per cent of the books in here. I am awesome.” Libraries that stayed open during the Blitz will be closed by budgets.

A trillion small doors closing.”