The news looks bleak for most of our public institutions, hospitals, the BBC and what was once the national library service. Library campaigners accuse the government of hiding the scale of cuts which they predict will force the closure of a further 400 UK libraries by 2016, bringing the total of library closures since 2009 to more than a thousand. According to the Library Campaign, working from local newspaper reports, a quarter of libraries have closed ince 2009 but this has been hidden among the piecemeal nature of the cuts.
But it’s patently obvious that mass closures have already taken place across the country, from Newcastle to the Isle of Wight, with 3,000 professional librarians losing their jobs. If the ten percent cut in local government funding just promised by the Chancellor is applied across the board, then campaigners predict a further 400 closures, making an estimated total of over 1,000 closures during a five-year period. Rural and deprived urban areas are among those most at risk.
The great and the good have got involved. National Treasure Alan Bennett has been mourning the great conduit to education he enjoyed as an aspiring working class child, before he got to Grammar school. His campaign has been joined by singer Nick Cave, and the rock bands Depeche Mode, The Pet Shop Boys and Goldfrapp.
As usual in the UK there are layers within layers and the issue is party political and about class. But these worthies have not seen what most modern libraries are like, at least in the towns. I have knowledge of them in London and South Staffs, and a friend who reports back from Southend, where 1.0 percent of the population are Muslim but the food in the library cafe is strictly halal.
Libraries in my experience over the thirty years have become organs of local government left wing propaganda. That might sound extreme, but when you enter a modern library the politics hits you in the face. Even in my home village of Codsall in south Staffordshire there are obvious irritations. Although the village is ninety eight percent white British and largely middle class, the small library displays an impressive range of fresh newspapers for foreigners, of all kinds, from the Caribbean Times to the Sydney Morning Herald. I have never seen any of them opened or disturbed in any way. I have asked in there for a copy of the Spectator and Private Eye, but no luck. They do not supply those periodicals and don’t seem to have heard of them when I enquire.
Then there is the issue of noise. When I used the library as a child it was a traditional place, and we had to keep quiet. This was enforced by Miss Begg, the librarian. She was rather a dragon, but that was expected. She told the local girls who worked there as her assistants that they could only use her Christian name when they’d got married. That seems to have raised their status to hers. Visit the library now and it sounds as though there is a party in full swing. When I once asked the woman behind the desk, name unknown, to ask the children to be quiet, she looked shocked and surprised. No such thing was going to happen.
When I first went to live in London, thirty years ago, I discovered that noise in libraries was a point of honour for the left. It was about breaking down taboos of all kinds and being a free person. I visited the tiny historic library in Lambeth and was amazed to hear the yobbish clot behind the desk having a long yobbish conversation at the top of his voice. I had a rather desolate feeling that I wasn’t going to enjoy life in Lambeth after that, and I didn’t.
It was the same when I moved to Hammersmith and then Shepherds Bush, where I was told that they couldn’t order any books. That was given up years ago. I could take refuge in the grand central library in Kensington where they still banned mobile phones and persecuted sleeping tramps. But the smaller libraries were useless for quiet study or to find books.
When I went to work in a prison the librarian there spelled it out to me when I complained about the noise.
‘You are out of date,’ she said, ‘libraries these days are inclusive places. We want to attract people in, not drive them away.’
So that was that. A place of quiet would drive people away. Even in prison where one of the worst features is constant noise, the library was hub of industrious human traffic, rather the way some churches are going. They also expose the deep educational divide between people who want teachers to teach children where to find knowledge but to refrain from ever giving them any personally, and those who want traditional teaching methods with a formal structure. Libraries today are on the side of the teaching unions, they are not about teaching, and consequently very little learning can go on in them. In the smaller libraries the only real information available is about finding your rights as an individual or part of that societal Borg like entity ‘the community’.
These crumbling civic buildings are bawling sound boxes of socialism, reverberating with information for the single parent and the refugee and full of computers. Books, like most of the people reading them are sidelined and getting very tatty.