Libraries are needed now more than ever

By Martin Vogel

West End Lane, NW6 – home to a dozen cafes and a library

Camden Council in north London, where I live, is considering changing the ethos of its libraries – to allow people to bring in food and drink and use their mobile phones.  The intention is to make libraries more appealing to young people.

As both a library user and the parent of a young person, this strikes me as an unfortunate and misguided idea.  Libraries are one of the few public spaces in the inner city to which people can turn for quiet.  Swiss Cottage, in the borough, hosts one of the best public libraries in the capital.  Young people constitute a significant proportion of the users.  They go there to find space where they can give unashamed attention to learning.  It’s a place of thought, study and contemplation.  It is wholly unsuited to be a stage for mobile phone conversations or snacking.  Urban life provides an abundance of venues for these activities.  The library offers an alternative realm.

Camden’s proposal loses sight of local councils’ mission in providing public libraries.  Their role is as custodian of a value: of access to knowledge, embodied not just in the provision of books and reference facilities but in the creation of an atmosphere conducive to engaging intelligently with them.  If councils are concerned about falling attendances, they might consider a remedy which is aligned with the public value of libraries rather than capitulation to the coffee shop.  This would entail improving the intrinsic appeal of library collections and promoting respect for them.

Victoria Coren – a columnist at The Observer – is a  fellow Camden resident who is also alarmed by the council’s proposal.  She links it to a more general shift in policy in Whitehall.  Only two years ago, the Culture Minister, David Lammy, was telling us “Books are fundamentally important to what libraries are about.”  Now the Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, insists that libraries must “look beyond the bookcase”.  Coren believes the contrary:

“Burnham says that more library funding would ‘not be realistic in the current climate’. Cobblers. In ‘the current climate’, people need, more than ever, to know about the world. To think laterally and have ideas. To develop an internal life, as an alternative to clubbing and jet-setting. To study history and learn how we’ve got out of trouble before.

“The man who thinks that books are a luxury to be cut back in times of recession is a man who doesn’t understand that knowledge is the key to everything and must be at the centre of everything.”

Burnham’s approach is in line with a prevailing view that libraries are no longer relevant to the era of Amazon and Google – a view well-expressed by Jemima Lewis in The Telegraph:

“People no longer want, or need, to borrow books. Public libraries were invented for the benefit of an aspirational working class – for autodidacts who could not afford the books they craved, at a time when books were really the only source of information.

“Many is the clever child who clambered his way out of poverty with the help of a library card. But these days, as the Kaiser Chiefs sing, “it’s cool to know nothing”. Brave indeed is the child at a sink estate school who follows his inner swot. And if the urge to learn proves irresistible, he is probably better off on the internet, where nobody need know that he isn’t surfing porn.”

This strikes me as a view which is wholly rooted in a culture – of affluent and ignorant consumerism – which is disintegrating more rapidly than we can comprehend.  As we’re all forced to review our spending, many will be delighted to find that libraries are more than equipped to meet the same need as impulse orders on Amazon address – but at a fraction of the cost.

Victoria Coren is surely right to suggest that libraries could find a new relevance in the impending period of austerity.  Could it be that preserving a space which exemplifies the ethos of concentration might serve young people better than pandering to an assumption that everything must defer to a culture of instant gratification?