Libraries

“Libraries symbolise a commitment to learning, community and equality that can no longer be taken for granted.”

That is a quote from comedian and actor David Mitchell, which I recently came across while reading an article he wrote for The Guardian on the new London Garden Bridge. It got me thinking about how much time we’ve dedicated to talking about the general decline in the number of public libraries, and why is isn’t something we’re in more of an uproar about.

The library closest to me, a small, council-run building next to a fairly busy roundabout, was recently closed. It was quite modest; a single floor with a large section portioned off for children, which included colourful bean bags, toys, and of course stacks and stacks of books. The rest of the building was what you would expect; shelves displaying books ordered by genre (‘young adult fiction’, ‘non-fiction’, ‘thriller’, ‘educational’… the list goes on), some computers arranged in rows on the outskirts of the room, a few armchairs scattered around alongside strategically placed tables, which often accumulated small piles of discarded books. It was a humble affair, but one its visitors were grateful for. For a period of a year or so, before I started buying books with a view to one day having enough for a library of my own, I was a frequent visitor to the library. I would leave with stacks of novels, then return two weeks later, entirely amazed at a system which allowed me to read so much for free, at a time when my past reading ventures had consisted of armfuls of books from charity shops, which were never the kind of books I really wanted to read.

After that building had closed, ‘Stanley Library’ became a measly two or three shelves of books no one has ever heard of in sigh-worthy condition in a corner of Stanley Leisure Centre. The pitiful collection is almost laughable, and the dilapidated shelves haven’t (or hadn’t been at the time I visited it a couple of months ago – it was too depressing to go back) even been labelled by genre or ‘A to Z author’; the meagre collection clearly wasn’t worthy of that. It was a crying shame to see that little literature haven so ruthlessly disregarded, but it was an outrage to see the shambles put in its place. Libraries are invaluable; opportunities for people to branch out into books when they perhaps couldn’t afford to put money into a reading habit (the cost of which cannot be underestimated), or to sit and read or work somewhere quiet surrounded by books. This in itself isn’t something that can be taken for granted, and is certainly not something which anyone should be denied.

I suppose there are arguments to be made for the fact libraries are no longer relevant. However, as far as I am concerned, for each argument for this viewpoint, there are ten on the contrary, so I won’t bother going into them. Even though I am no longer someone who constantly borrows books, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to do so, and am well aware that I may be again at some point in the future. At risk of sounding clichéd, I love books. I love what they are, I love what they do, I love what they do for people, and I love what they represent. So do millions of others, and the slow decline of our public libraries is, unmistakably, a great shame. Which is, of course, to say that we need to do more, and think more about what our libraries mean to us.