Boyd Tonkin: Not one more library must close

The week in books

If it wished to rebuild mutual trust, social capital and motives for hope and change in the riot-wrecked streets of a nation's cities, where might a truly idealistic society begin? Perhaps its policy-makers, with money no object, would plan a network of more than 4000 dedicated cultural and community centres, their locations scattered throughout urban areas – not just in downtown hubs and comfortable suburbs. It would protect these centres with a core role defined by statute, but give them enough flexibility to innovate, to connect and to co-operate.

Hopelessly utopian, I know. Except that Britain's network of public libraries already exists. Or rather, it hangs on by the skin of its under-resourced teeth. Roughly 10 per cent of the total, more than 400, currently stand at risk of closure. Dozens have already shut.

I know and have heard all the possible objections to a view of local libraries that puts them at the heart of community renewal. Potential rioters and looters don't care about them anyway. To enter a library in the first place identifies a young person as part of the solution, not the problem. Feral teens who trash the shops will not take an interest in the library until the day dawns when it agrees to stock top-brand sportswear and flat-screen TVs.

Perhaps, just for once, a sharpened sense of desperation might open political and media eyes to something other than plausible cynicism. If the local library system did not already stand, it would take uncountable billions to build. It serves (or did, until the cuts) many of those neighbourhoods bypassed and shunned by other amenities. Libraries are not schools, or courts, or job centres, or social-services outstations. At their best they embody an ideal of voluntary personal development and civic solidarity that few other sites could ever hope to match.

A few days ago, the Local Government Association and the soon-to-be-scrapped Museums, Libraries and Archives Council issued a bland, dispiriting report on the "Future Libraries Programme". Along with the cliché-rich bromides and all the euphemisms for cost-cutting you would expect in such a document, it advises that libraries should integrate their work with "other community facilities like churches, shops and village halls", and that existing buildings could multi-task by hosting "health centres and police surgeries".

Until recently, I might have agreed. Now, I wonder whether the very separateness of libraries – their relative autonomy and lack of integration with other organs of the local state – might prove a precious blessing. The notion of an open space for all citizens where everyone can, but no one must, discover more about options and opportunities appeals now more than ever. Of course, a welcoming or a shuttered local library will look like exactly the same pile of pointless or intimidating brick to young people already so alienated that all they want to read is designer labels on stolen togs. Yet the reporters who tracked this week's urban mayhem have frequently come across copycat young-teenage rioters who simply tagged along for kicks. Many kids of that age can still be turned towards creation rather than destruction. But how?

At the very least, all library closures must now cease. Especially in inner-urban areas, buildings recently shut should reopen. Professional staff must provide the backbone of their service, although volunteers can and should play their part. All those turf-war squabbles about priorities – new books vs new technology, pure reading vs community outreach – should end. And central and local government could stop passing the buck.

Prevention always costs less than cure. The prospect of friendly, busy branch libraries diverting even a few of the disaffected or the dispossessed from crime and despair sounds like sheer fantasy. But every little helps, as the slogan on the looted supermarket has it.

Besides, non-rioters in urban battle zones – the peaceful 99.5 per cent, in other words – need reward and reassurance now. Part of the British crisis of authority stems from a shortage of safe public space that has nothing to do with the consumption of goods or the enforcement of control. That's why so many people defend even small, low-tech hospitals. The portals of every library lead into another such place. Is this pitiably naïve? Then find us a better door to open.

Listen to the real moral leaders

Among the elite failures of recent days has been the pitiful inability of politicians to craft any phrase or express any idea that rises to such a grave occasion. We hope for words of comfort, guidance, uplift. They give us only banal windbaggery or partisan drivel. Try to find public figures who can voice collective fears and hopes in a language that fits the theme, and you need to listen far away from Westminster. To, for example, those writers who command the sort of respect that ministers and mayors can only dream of. So maybe we could hand over the government to an emergency triumvirate of Carol Ann Duffy, Philip Pullman and Michael Morpurgo.

E-readers at war in the clouds

How might old stagers in the book business greet the prospect of a courtroom showdown between Apple and Amazon, those twin gravediggers of traditional publishing? "Unalloyed glee" would be putting it mildly. The teams behind the iPad and the Kindle have sparred for months over those issues of pricing, transfer and compatibility that still make digital reading a bit like a train journey in the time before a standard gauge. Now Amazon has launched its Kindle Cloud Reader, which allows users not just to read Kindle books but buy them on the iPad or iPhone, thus cutting Apple out of the profit loop. It's all down to the wonder of HTML5 web apps. This strikes a big blow at Apple's policy of maximising revenue via control of its devices and all their apps. Yet Amazon, not Apple, has done most to hasten the ruin of writers and publishers with its race to the bottom on price. When it comes to picking goodies and baddies, the e-book wars resemble the theatre of the absurd much more than a Victorian melodrama.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Britain's Got Talent judges: Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and David Walliams

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral