Boyd Tonkin: Not one more library must close
The week in books
Friday 12 August 2011
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.
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