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Library closures – a view from Caitlin Moran

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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.”

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19 Responses to “Library closures – a view from Caitlin Moran”

  • I can completely relate to Caitlin’s views. I have such wonderful memories of the two libraries that featured in my childhood, one of which I have now worked into a new book. Its impact – the atmosphere, the physical structure of the building, the smells, the rows of thousands and thousands of books, the way I felt just being there – all of these feelings have stayed with me. I don’t think the importance of keeping libraries as a focal point of our communities can be underestimated.

  • libraries are not worth saving any more. they bin good literature and fill up the shelves with tv dross, Jeremy Clarkson et al. My library dumped the complete works of G B Shaw and when I went there next time, multiple copies of Clarkson. Lots of Jamie Olivier too and Paxman going on about how glorious it is to be English. Piers Morgan the best of them but who’d want to read him whose’s interest isn’t ego? People who are millionaires shouldn’t be allowed to take over public reading space. The libraries let us down in giving space over to what is essentially the BBC, infantalising the population with glich. There’s a lot of secrecy about how the books are chosen. One can wait months after making a request only to be told they don’t have it any more, even though it’s on the catalogue. And then they won’t buy it. Too much manipulation by the market-makers, commercial interests who tell you what you should read which is only what they want you to read, determined by finances in the private corporate world. A library is more than bricks; it’s an ideological institution. Now contaminated by the celebrity dross pushers
    my 2 c worth

  • I agree. But there is a wider collective responsibility on those of us who can afford to buy 3 for 2 books for ourselves and our children. Who download without thinking a pile of holiday reading to their Kindle (including How to be… ; excellent read btw). We should also be using our libraries and encouraging those who don’t see the value of reading (as, say, an alternative to looting). It’s no good us crying that libraries, the havens and treasure troves of our youth, are closing if no one is using them. Just off to hug a library…online (renewing remotely has saved me many a 40p!).

  • ‘‘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 post-war and Sixties red-brick boxy libraries will be coffee shops, Lid’s and pubs. No new libraries will be built to replace them. These libraries will be lost forever.’‘

    To be honest I’m not sure this isn’t exactly what the government wanted in the first place.

    Deep down I don’t think the Conservatives are that bothered about the deficit other than using it as a way to push through cuts. But then this isn’t really about saving money is it? It’s about paying for tax cuts before the next election.

    So when all is said and done, and the cuts are said and done, they’ll be another excuse (other than the deficit) from Cameron as to why public spending cant be brought back up again.

  • The more ignorant the people, the more that can be taken from them – wages, decent working conditions, the right to demand fair treatment from government. There was a reason serfs were so popular with the ruling class. Besides, it they want books why don’t they buy them? Appalling.

  • @anytimefrances – I am a librarian and I buy the requests for our library. I adore a good conspiracy theory, but I try my hardest to get books for people and have never been told not to. We now only have one library supplier and they are pretty good at sourcing books still in print, but I use small bookshops to get requested books that are out of print. The usual reason that books aren’t there when they say available on the catalogue is because they have been stolen. I do agree with you on the general level of pulp non-fiction though. We buy what’s popular and what will issue and this is it. However, if someone requests more unusual items, I’ll buy them. For now anyway! Till the thought police arrive.

  • You are so right – libraries are not just for poor people but having been a School Board member and Public Housing commissioner in a city with a large population of at risk children, I cannot stress the importance of libraries for children whose daily environment may lack many if not most of the enrichments other children enjoy. One of the best programs the US government had was RIF – Reading is Fundamental. Not only were children’s reading experiences improved, they were given books to take home and keep. A library book isn’t for keeps but it gives a child the experience of having a book immediately at hand which is the best way I know of to encourage reading. Our libraries are also a huge benefit to new, non-English speaking people. I teach ESL in a public library and all of the students use the library and its resources constantly. There are just so many ways a library improves the life of an entire community.

  • Have been in the new Nosy Crow office reassembling Ikea bookshelves, unpacking and cleaning so that it’s OK for people coming in tomorrow. Am really pleased to see this lively and interesting chain of comments.

    Ted,

    You asked what I disagreed with.

    (a) Well, Caitlin Moran’s making a valid point about the value of non-commercial public spaces, but I don’t think that all shops are bad and manifestly (and the impact of riots on small businesses (see http://www.delootlondon.co.uk/ ) is a strong reminder of this) they aren’t all owned by wealthy people, so I don’t agree with, “A mall – the shops – are places where your money makes the wealthier wealthy.”

    (b) I completely understand, given her own background (which is described in How To Be a Woman), that she’s emphasising the importance of libraries for “poor kids”, but everyone who pays taxes contributes to libraries, and everyone benefits. I think that libraries are for everyone – and that’s one of their great benefits – regardless of their socio-economic status, and I’d like to have this view expressed. This has come up in these comments and in our previous blog post on this subject (see http://www.nosycrow.com/blog/save-our-libraries-day-tomorrow ).

    Kingfelix,

    Are you trying to be funny, or just offensive? Or have you a serious point to make? That you don’t give any explanation for your comment suggests you don’t.

  • Another reason that everyone should be using libraries is that they are one of the very few indoor places you can bring children without having to pay. Anyone who’s tried to entertain small kids on a rainy day will know how valuable a library can be. Books, colouring materials, computers, peace and quiet – they’re a perfect place to spend an afternoon. They’re really the only option as there’s only so many times you can bring kids to a museum or gallery. I’d be lost without libraries and parks.

  • Libraries are not just for poor people, and not just for kids. You can load up your e-reader from your library’s Website. I don’t buy guidebooks when I go away; I order a book from my library. If the GBS hasn’t been borrowed for years, should it be kept, or should the space go to material that is, even if it isn’t to your taste? I’ve discovered many books and authors I wouldn’t have through libraries.

  • Excellent article by Caitlin – articulate, practical, insightful and very moving to boot. I agree – it should be sent to all libraries and local councils and MPs.

  • A fantastic article that encapsulates everything I value in my library service and why we must not think only of the ‘now’ but also think to the future – the next Caitlin or David Nicholls (another person who has written about the value he got from his library as a child) might be loosing their libraries now. It is short-termism in the extreme.

    Libraries are for everyone – the child exploring, the teenager discovering, the researcher at any point in their life, the adult seeking information, escape, a new skill…..accessible via the Internet, in person in a library, over the phone accessing a librarian.

    A fantastic resource

  • I thought it was interesting that on Sunday Aung San Suu Kyi made her first political trip out of Rangoon since her release from house arrest. And what did she use this new-found freedom to do? She made a speech calling for unity and democracy and she opened two public libraries.

  • A late addition here. I remember Billy Connolly and Michael Caine on a talk show (Parkinson, I think) both agreeing that libraries in their poor areas were a big part of inspiring them to try to move beyond the circumstances of their childhoods.

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