|by Phil Bradley|
Today, in the UK, campaigners are holding a national day of action to save libraries from closure. It is believed that up to 450 libraries are threatened with closure because of Tory spending cuts. In common with many other people I believe that closing libraries is a false economy. It represents a failure to invest in the future of the country’s children and in the future of the country itself.
The libraries in the county where I now live are not actually threatened with cuts, although there are suggestions that opening hours will be cut and greater automation will mean fewer staff. However, the Tory-run county’s libraries are already poorly funded and nowhere near as well stocked as they ought to be. I’m fortunate in having access to a university library, which satisfies my rather arcane reading needs so I rarely need to visit my local library any more. Nonetheless, I made a point of calling in last week, just to see what goes on there these days. More books would have been nice but the place was heaving with adults and children, and it still clearly plays a vital role in local life, which is exactly as it should be. If and when my county council starts trying to close local libraries, I’ll be out campaigning against closure with everyone else.
Instead, today, as my contribution to the Save Our Libraries campaign, I want to write about the libraries in Oxfordshire, where I was born and brought up, because those are the libraries that turned me into the person I am today. And I want to write about them because Oxfordshire County Council has decided to close 20 out of its 43 public libraries, including most of the branch libraries around Oxford, among them the branch library I used pretty much every week (sometimes twice a week) for almost all of my childhood.
This is a list of the libraries under threat of closure or withdrawn funding.
Adderbury, Bampton, Benson Grove, Berinsfield, Charlbury, Chinnor, Deddington, Neithrop, North Leigh, Sonning Common, Stonesfield, Woodcote
Summertown, Headington, Old Marston, Botley, Blackbird Leys, Littlemore, Kennington.
The first list contains libraries scattered across the county. In each case, I guess the argument is that their users can simply go to the nearest main town, and use the library there instead, though if, as we are being told, there will be cuts in council-subsidised public transport, that may be an entirely academic point.
The second list consists of branch libraries around the edge of Oxford.
The reasoning behind these closures, I suppose, is that the people who used the branch libraries can simply pop into Oxford and use the central library instead (it was, and I trust still is, a very fine central library) or go to a different branch library, one slightly further away. Anyone familiar with the geography of Oxford and with the locations of many of the libraries being threatened will immediately grasp that closing Blackbird Leys branch library, to take one particularly egregious example, does not mean that the people who used that library will simply jump on a bus and go down to Temple Cowley library. It’s not just a bus ride away, it’s ‘dressing up the kids, putting them in their baby buggy, waiting for the bus, getting everyone on and off the bus, paying at least one bus fare, go to the library, repeat the process to go home’ away. Or, if you’re older, a little frail, it’s a ‘walk to the bus stop, get on bus with difficulty, walk to library, repeat’ away. It’s no longer part of a simple daily routine. You really have to want to go to a library to do that every week and it’s all too easy to get out of the habit. If adults get out of the habit, kids don’t even get into the habit.
Or let us consider the branch library of my childhood, in Old Marston. It is one moderately-sized room, stuck on the side of the village hall, convenient for the village, for everyone on the old council estate. With that library closed, the possibilities are limited. You could catch a bus to Summertown ... but wait, that library will be closed. You could go to Headington, except ... damn, someone’s closed that library too. There is no alternative but to go into central Oxford.
If you live in Littlemore, you would not, historically, have gone to Blackbird Leys anyway; although it’s geographically close, it’s not close by road, and anyway, it was always a tribal world away. Getting to Temple Cowley by bus from Littlemore was always impossible because the bus routes are radial and it would mean going into the town centre in order to go out again, so it’s easier to use the Central Library, but actually, why bother at all. And when I lived in Rose Hill, the other side of the ring road from Littlemore, I did not even know there was a branch library a scant mile or so away because it was an entirely different community. And Botley, to take a different situation, is right on the edge of the city, cuddled up against the ring road. There’s precious little there to begin with. If the library goes, its users have no alternative but to make the long trek by bus or on foot into Central Oxford. Why bother?
The point is, these cuts look straightforward on paper, but if you know the communities involved, you can see that they make no sense at all. And all to save 2 million pounds, much of it by taking facilities away from communities that already experience crushing social deprivation and will need other support as a result. This is, purely and simply, a false economy.
I joined the library at Old Marston as soon as I could read, and over the next eleven or twelve years it became a home from home. I still remember that distinctive smell of books mixed with musty village hall. I visited it at least once a week, sometimes more, often calling in on my way home from school, and I read my way through the children’s fiction and the adult fiction, and the non-fiction. It had a particularly outstanding selection of books of fairy and folktales, which I read, and a wonderful selection of old-fashioned travel books, which I also devoured. I found my first book about UFOs in that library, not to mention my first science fiction and fantasy – Andre Norton, C.S. Lewis, Tove Jansson, over there on the wall that backed onto the main road. Non-fiction on the wall facing the door, adult fiction starting on the wall to the right of the door as I walked in, continuing to the wall on my left.
The librarian left me to my own devices and never commented on the sometimes wildly unsuitable books my eleven-year-old self took out, for which I am still very grateful. I was a bright and enquiring child, probably very irritating to have around, and she gave me the chance to explore the world through books without having someone constantly looking over my shoulder. As a result I have a well-stocked mind full of stuff which I regularly put to use in daily life all these years later.
I did of course outrageously two-time my branch library by joining the central library in Oxford as well, back in the days when it was still in the same building as the town hall, the library Philip Pullman remembers in his fantastic speech in support of the campaign to save Oxford’s libraries. I joined the children’s library but I also remember my father taking me to the adult library so I could use his tickets to get out more books. They weren’t very happy about that, I recall, but he’s quite a tall man and they seemed disinclined to pick an argument. Eventually they gave in and let me have my own tickets. In those days children were more independent at an earlier age and by the time I was eleven or twelve I was happily taking the bus or cycling into town on a Saturday to get more books from the library. So many children no longer enjoy that kind of freedom and are going to be far more reliant on already busy parents; routines like going to the library are bound to slip. I ranged happily through the library every week until I left Oxford altogether in my mid-twenties. I still miss the central library, in all its incarnations.
I was a bookish child, in a household where books were considered important but a luxury. As a consequence I didn’t have many books of my own. I scrimped and saved my pocket money and birthday money to buy books, but without my local public library I would probably have starved intellectually. books meant everything to me when I was young and I still believe that a life without access to books and information is a life that is somehow incomplete. Nowadays there are more ways of gaining access to the written word than I could ever have imagined but many people still need to be able to go somewhere in order to gain that access. Not everyone has regular access to a computer or broadband. The local library provides this, books, journals, newspapers, as well as other facilities. To take this away from a community is little short of criminal.
Philip Pullman expresses more eloquently than I ever could the flaws in David Cameron’s concept of Big Society, particularly when it comes to people taking over and running libraries in their communities. When Lord Wei, Cameron’s own unpaid volunteering czar, is forced to admit that he can’t run his own business as well as oversee the volunteering project, what hope for the rest of us? I used to be a library assistant, I would feel duty-bound to put my rusty skills at the community’s disposal if called to, but I’d need to rely on Paul’s financial support to work in Dave’s Big Society, which suggests to me that something isn’t quite right here. And I certainly couldn’t afford to put money into supporting a library, much as I’d like to. (There are all sorts of other less visible issues at play here as well, such as who determines what a library stocks: not everyone in a community is as cheerfully laissez-faire about what children do and don’t read as I seem to be, for example.)
I suppose my point is that libraries give people opportunities to expand their mental horizons, be it reading a book or using a PC to find information or seeking help from a librarian. Closing a library rips the heart out of a community and denies people those vital opportunities. Is this really what Dave’s Big Society is all about? It seems it is. I wonder when he last went to the library?
For me, access to a library is part of what it means to be civilised. It is not a luxury but a necessity, and you need to have necessities close to home.
These outstanding posters and many more were created by Phil Bradley. Take a look at the others on his Flickr account.