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Public libraries aren’t businesses


My parents were self-made immigrants who never completed their secondary education. Displaced by war and poverty, their families survived by focusing on food and such inflation-proof assets as diamonds and property. The material plenitude my parents showered on their children did not include books because, as my father once asked about poetry, what was the point?

My parents didn’t get libraries, though they appreciated that they were free, while being disturbed that library books, like the handrails on public staircases we were warned not to touch, bore the imprints of countless strange and unhygienic hands. They took me to the library only if I insisted the demands of homework left no alternative. But after I left home and was free to choose where I spent my time, libraries became far more than an intellectual version of the mythical sweet shops of childhood. At school, libraries had occasionally provided refuge from the ruthless popularity contests of the playground. At university and afterwards, they were a haven, a home from home – or rather a home I’d never had.

So the decision last week by Fife Council to close 16 of its 51 libraries brought me up short. Like everyone I knew, I had taken part in the consultation and signed the online petition. Everyone at my son’s village school, Crail Primary, wrote a letter or made a poster pleading the case for their local library. When Fife’s executive director of education banned the children at Crail Primary from participating in a photoshoot to protest against its closure, I had a row with the officer obliged to justify his boss’s decision. I kept my son off school and as the only child to turn out with the pensioners, councillors and the local MP, he graced the front pages of two local papers.

But I didn’t really believe that Fife’s elected representatives would approve the proposed closures. They would save only £571,000 a year, and the council faces budget cuts of £21 million. There were attempts to repackage the library cuts as ‘necessary improvements’ to an ‘evolving service’ which would ‘ensure its sustainability’. The decision, nationally unprecedented, was picked up in a Times leader and condemned in the Guardian by Val McDermid and Ian Rankin, both of whom grew up in Fife depending on local libraries.

Contributors to the Guardian comments section assumed the councillors responsible were Tories, but the vote was proposed and unanimously supported by Labour, who blamed the SNP government at Holyrood for reducing Fife Council’s budget by 0.9 per cent, freezing council tax at 2007 levels and breaking its 2007 manifesto pledge to allow councils to raise a local income tax. The SNP in turn blamed Conservative austerity and the (always) unfair devolution settlement.

Lurking behind the cuts to libraries, particularly the small rural ones in Fife’s well-heeled north-east which have been disproportionately targeted, is the embarrassment that these are middle-class totems, quaint exercises in nostalgia in the internet age, ripe for the chop when compared to the NHS or what is euphemistically known as Social Care. Such middle-class self-hatred typically misses the point. A community website for Lochgelly and Cardenden, where an estimated 778 children (29 per cent) live in poverty, illustrated a piece on the library closures with a photo of burned books. Only one library in the area is on the hit-list. Yet the report is clear: reducing access to public libraries increases the deprivation of the already deprived by denying them autonomous learning opportunities. In communities like Crail, which recently lost its bank and post office, closing the library removes a key civic and communal space. Private and privatised, the virtual space of the internet is no substitute.

Three years ago, responsibility for Fife’s libraries was hived off to the Fife Cultural Trust, a limited company which operates the council’s libraries, arts, museums and archives services. Told by the council that its management fee would be reduced by £3 million over three years, the FCT ‘reconfigured its business plan’ to choose which libraries would be closed based on footfall and building condition. Public libraries aren’t businesses, as Andrew Carnegie knew in 1880 when he chose his birthplace, Dunfermline in Fife, to found the first of 2509 libraries across the world. Reviewing John Palfrey’s book Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google on Alternet earlier this year, Amien Essif wrote: ‘Of all the institutions we have, both public and private, the public library is the greatest democratic space.’

Comments on “Public libraries aren’t businesses”

  1. Libraries are a peculiar democratic space in that they (still) do not like a lot of talking – i.e. information-sharing and debate. Though silence is proposed as a courtesy to others, it clearly has its origins in the “rule” of monastic orders, just as Andrew Carnegie’s conception of the library as a luxurious collection that commands respect has its roots in the Renaissance.

    The moment when public libraries could have taken on a more democratic mantle was 50 years ago, particularly in the context of adult education and vocational training. They flunked the chance then, largely because of the debilitating brain/hand dichotomy, and subsequent attempts to extend their “community services” have been timid.

    We’ve lost a lot of other democratic spaces over the last 30 years, from football terraces to public squares (i.e. ones where you’re not moved on by the police or forced to negotiate a farmers’ market). The battle for libraries was lost long ago and most politicians who “defend” them are just going through the motions.

    We needed more anger, not sentimentality.

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