I wrote this in protest against plans to close the the York Gardens Public Library in Wandsworth. It was given at their Read-in on Saturday 5th February 2011.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
I grew up in Wandsworth, just up the road. I learnt to read early, and I’ve loved it ever since. At school we had a little lending library, mostly full of old Puffins, where I took books out, and even occasionally was allowed to buy books of my very own from the age of seven or so (that was how I discovered The Moomins. I still have my original eight Puffin paperback Moomin books, and I still re-read them all every couple of years). But my excitement at the wonders held between those covers was as nothing to the thrill behind the doors of Battersea Library in Lavender Hill. A red brick Victorian building with an atmosphere half-imposing, half-welcoming, and all serious. I first went in when I was seven, feeling very grown-up. I loved the smell. All libraries have this smell: the smell of ink, paper, sticky-backed plastic and concentration. The children’s library, on the right as you went in had a particularly strong scent of excitement. There’s something about meeting a hardback edition of a book you know in paperback that brings the whole function of a library into focus. Different artwork on the front, a larger size, a plastic cover and those sturdy boards around it designed to keep it safe and strong as it’s passed from hand to hand to hand.
I remember reading Watership Down when I was very small. I finished it and was bereft. I announced solemnly to my mother that it was the best book I had ever read, and that nothing could replace it in my affections. I may even have cried a little, proud of the strength of my loyalty. My mother was unfazed. She took me down to Battersea Library, we returned with The Hobbit – that hardback edition with the blue and green and white cover inscribed by Tolkien with dwarven runes around the edge – and that was that. I was hooked. I’ve never re-read Watership Down, but The Hobbit has become one of my favourite tales, and this Christmas I bought that same edition for my nephew. I suppose I could have bought it for him on Kindle. But I wanted him to be able to hold it in his hand (and I could have got it from the library).
I was 14 in 1980. The 80s were a gallstone of a decade to be a teenager. On top of the usual crises of conscience and identity, we had regular nightmares about nuclear war and a real feeling that for the first time in our history, we could easily destroy ourselves. And no Twitter to distract you.
I was scared and confused. And going to Battersea Library made it better. I met and devoured a number of books by authors who took these worries seriously; dystopian, post-holocaustal stuff by Peter Dickinson, Monica Hughes, John Wyndham, John Christopher. They spoke to my concerns and made me feel less lonely. In fact, I suspect I got more comfort and inspiration from those books that today’s 14 year-olds get from Skins or Facebook.
Libraries are great news for kids. A child can devour a new picture book every night. Where else can you go to get all those books for free, chosen by people who know about such things? Libraries’ work with kids is increasingly successful. The number of books leant to children in this country went up from 63 million in 2005 to 69 million in 2009. This very library played its part in that success.
Now my parents first took me to the library; not all parents do. But it’s important to remember that libraries must be there for children to find by themselves. Not just as a place to borrow books, but as a safe, warm, friendly and quiet place to work or think if life at home is too loud or too crowded (for goodness’ sake, let’s also trumpet libraries as a place where homeless people can go to read the paper out of the rain). Instead of shutting them down, why not spend the little extra money to keep every library open ‘til 8pm on a school night? Would any one thing change the homework habits of the nation more cheaply?
The point is, there’s a confused 14-year-old out there on this estate right now for whom this place could be a refuge, an oasis, an inspiration, and who faced with the walk to another library a bit less local, a bigger one that hasn’t been shut down, won’t bother. You can’t just tell children to walk the extra mile through dark streets and under railway lines. They shouldn’t have to.
Do any of you play the computer game SimCity? When your city’s thriving a few years in, the people rise up with one voice and demand a library. Build one, and your people get happier, and cleverer. Build two, and the effects increase. Build enough to cover the city and land values go up. But never, ever, not even in the SimCity universe, does a councillor appear suggesting that there are too many libraries.
I can’t quite believe we are here today. I mean, what kind of arse wants to close a library? It beggars belief. Councillors with books and internet connections of their own can’t imagine being someone who can’t afford a book, or how valuable those things can be to those who haven’t got them. Why shut this particular library, which is so clearly needed, used and loved? Why not shut a bigger library in a more prosperous ward? Presumably Wandsworth Tories think there are fewer votes to be lost around here. If that’s true, they should be ashamed.
Today’s Tories seem to be terrified of things being free at source. It promotes social mobility. Dangerous nonsense.
We will be told by the council that the punitive cuts imposed on them by central government leave them no choice. They cannot afford to oppose these cuts (why else do we elect these people?). They will say “What would you cut instead?” As Philip Pullman points out: it’s not our job to cut services, it’s your job to defend them.
But we can oppose these cuts. And we will. All over the country, all over the world, and not just today, protests like this are giving voice and volume to a very deep-seated feeling: that the price of a library and the value of a library are not the same thing.
A library is a repository of knowledge. It shouldn’t matter if nobody even takes anything out of it. Nobody ever borrowed anything from the great library of Alexandria, but I don’t remember Greek local councillors campaigning to have it closed down. In the end, it was the cuts to the fire service that did for that one.
Public libraries cost £1.2bn a year to run, or one-sixth of the tax avoided by Vodaphone. Public libraries employ 25 000 people. Close them all and would we save that £1.2bn? Nope. Here’s why, from John Kirriemuir’s excellent blog (http://use-libraries-and-learn-stuff.blogspot.com/2010/10/are-public-libraries-expensive-to-run.html):
• That’s 25,000 less employed people paying tax
• …and 25,000 more unemployed people claiming benefits.
• The knock-on effect to the suppliers of goods and services libraries need, will take a hit
• …as will the providers of goods and services bought by those 25,000 library staff
• …and author and publisher payments will be down, so less tax to be gained there as well.
• There’s the unquantifiable number of people who use library services to get back into employment, through re-skilling, self-education or finding work. Close libraries and that’s more tax gain lost, more people still claiming benefits.
And to those Wandsworth Tory Councillors who think “I’m alright Jack”, here’s a selfish sum to make you think. There are 35 million registered library users, making an average of, say, 10 visits a year. Let’s say the average cost of a new paperback is £5. Let’s say you borrow 2 books each visit. So that’s 20 books at £5 each, which is £100. £1.2bn divided by 35m users is about £35. So your library membership saves you £65 a year. Nice little earner!
In the Daily Telegraph, Phil Bradley, a librarian, posted a comment to a pro-cuts piece by some 12-year old economics graduate saying that libraries were unaffordable. Because one of the aims of today’s meeting is to support the staff of these places and the amazing work they do, I thought I’d end with Phil’s powerful words. He says it better than ever I could.
“I pay taxes for a fire service I may use… I pay taxes for schools I don’t use. I pay taxes for a library I DO use. If you are paying for something you don’t use – well, I think you’re the idiot and not me. But then, I’m not an economist…
And even if none of that were true – I pay for a library service because I believe that people should have a right to information. I believe that libraries give us a chance to Question, not just Read. I believe that everyone – young, old, rich or poor, the advantaged and the disadvantaged should have the right and the opportunity to better themselves. That should not come at the price of being able to afford a computer and internet connection, or the ability to buy books as and when needed for one-off use, or the existing skill and ability to find out information.
A library is a mark of a civilized society, and I’d rather have a book than an economist telling me how much it costs.”