To judge from the observations of friends and contacts working in arts and conservation, throughout the post-war period, there can scarcely have been a government more unsympathetic to these sectors than the present Tory-controlled Coalition. Yet, ironically, when it comes to making swingeing cuts to library services, none has seemed to wield the axe more readily in London than Brent Council, where Labour holds the majority.
Now this is pretty serious, for Brent is, as is well known, one of the poorest of the London boroughs, and such actions must hit hard at the young, the elderly and those below the poverty line.
Many locals were so incensed that they took the case to court. Surely, they argued, a council has a duty to provide adequate funding for public libraries under the 1964 Libraries and Museums Act. Alas, the ruling went against them, and the council – within moments of the decision – moved in to padlock the doors of Kensal Green Library, the most high profile of the six Brent closures.
The campaigners, undaunted and drawing upon the support of local celebrities as diverse as Alan Bennett and the Pet Shop Boys, took their case to the Court of Appeal. A cause for encouragement was a similar instance in the West Country, where the judge had agreed with campaigners that the closures of 21 libraries by the councils of Gloucestershire and Somerset was indeed unlawful. However, the Court of Appeal has come down in favour of the closures in the Brent controversy.
It’s gloomy stuff, for it adds to the sense that books are in retreat as the techno-society (average attention span? – roughly ten seconds) takes over.
This is not, I hasten to add, a dig at all new digital culture; more simply a plea that in welcoming it in, we take care not to abandon aspects of the old ‘analogue’ version that may still serve a (not always immediately apparent) function.
Even if you care about books, though, the pro-cuts lobby can point to falling usage of libraries to justify the fund-slashing. And it’s admittedly hard to get worked up about many public libraries, with their shelves of trashy pot-boilers and frothy romances. What sort of public education facility are they providing?
I would argue that libraries, properly managed, remain vital as repositories of ideas and as emblems of an articulate populace, of a modern and informed ‘civilisation’, if you like. One of the underlying reasons for the Arab Spring being such a torrid affair might be the fact that there is no equivalent system in many of those countries, where a ‘library’ is often merely a collection of ancient manuscripts with, to the average person, no relevance to modern life. You can’t build an educated democratic culture over the internet, even if you can collude and agitate upon it over the need for a better one.
I’m not sure, though, that our own establishment is actually that bothered about this sort of thing, so it must be fought for by ‘us’. It was interesting that when the New York Police Department moved in to dismantle the Occupy Wall Street camp in Lower Manhattan in November, one of their actions was to dismantle the protestors’ library of over five thousand books. They were hauled into dump trucks and, as it began to rain, the NYPD ignored the requests of protestors to cover them with tarpaulin or plastic…
This highly symbolic act tells you all you need to know about why libraries, as part of our intellectual freedom, are so worth fighting for. Don’t let the Philistines get away with it.