At a library near you - tramps, mums and saddies

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The Independent Online
Our free local newspaper plopped through the letter-box last week with the story that a group of celebrities had joined their voices in protest at the closure of three branch libraries in north London. I wouldn't risk boring you with a parochial matter like this, were it not for the fact that government policy on libraries has been under attack from just about all quarters recently. And the closure of these nice little libraries - Chalk Farm, Belsize and Kilburn - comes in the very week we learn that the British have very nearly the lowest literacy and numeracy levels in Europe.

It so happens that I live in a rather absurd part of London which is the equivalent of the old Soviet writers' compounds. The queue in our Marks & Sparks looks like, and sometimes is, the Booker shortlist. Those who are protesting against the closure of the Chalk Farm library include Joan Bakewell, Ben Elton, Martin Amis and Alan Bennett. They all live in the parish. Salman Rushdie doesn't live in the parish any more, as far as we know, but he is said to be just as vociferous in his support for the public libraries as have, in the neighbouring parish of Hampstead, such figures as Margaret Drabble and Michael Holroyd.

When so many well-meaning liberal-minded people are agreed upon a subject one is tempted to search about for a reason to prove them wrong. And indeed, in north London, it is impossible not to remember the views of the immortal Peter Simple - that it should not have unduly troubled anyone that Hampstead public library, a nursery of sedition, should have been bombed by the Luftwaffe.

But one does not have to be paradoxical to see why all these bookish neighbours of mine are wrong about the public libraries. Indeed, Peter Simple would no longer be able to make the joke, since most public libraries, far from being leftist centres where would-be intellectuals go to read Sartre and de Beauvoir, are now very different. I wonder when Amis or Rushdie last went to a public library. As a regular user of all my local libraries, I have to record that I have never seen any of these celebrities at any of them. I don't blame them, since, except in the largest of our libraries, there are fewer and fewer books. Nearly all small public libraries in England have changed. They are no longer primarily for people like me - addicts of cheap fiction who don't necessarily want to own the works of Frederick Forsyth or Agatha Christie, and who would prefer to re-read these authors in the smelly Cellophane-covered hardbacks provided by the rates. Instead, libraries have become something between a branch of the Citizens' Advice Bureau and a video shop, with space given to toddlers. The last time I tried to read in the doomed Chalk Farm library my thoughts were drowned by a slanging match between a cantankerous gentleman of the road whose stertorous slumbers were being disturbed by the mums and babies chanting "Postman Pat".

How has it come about that the libraries are not given over to books? There are probably many causes, but for one generally cheering explanation you need look no further than the group of north London protesters. They represent the biggest single reason why public libraries are no longer as popular, or as necessary, as they once were.

All these great authors are millionaires. I am sure that all their grateful readers believe that this is no more than their due. You would infuriate them if you turned up at a public signing session and told them: "I'm not buying your book, I've put it on my library list." Why else would they hire agents to get them huge sums in advance of publication, were it not for the fact that these people want us to buy their books, rather than use libraries? I read library books because I am too cautious to buy many modern paperbacks. All the reviews so far of Salman Rushdie's latest novel say it is a masterpiece. But it is more than 900 pages long, and what if they're wrong? If I buy it, I'm stuck with a doorstopper of a book which I shall never read.

Safer to go to the library, and borrow a book which I've read already. But most modern readers do not think as I do. In the bestseller culture which has benefited Amis and Rushdie, people are expected to buy books, not to borrow them. And if you had Rushdie's latest masterpiece piled on your table, with, say, Elton's Popcorn, and a few of the more modish designer-non-fiction titles such as Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works you are not going to have the time for the detective stories and mid- 20th century novelists which are my staple comfort-reading fare. That is the explanation for why public libraries are changing, and why they appear to be changing for the worse.

The seven million adults in the country who are barely literate and who can't add up their change when they go shopping at the supermarket were never very likely to have patronised libraries in any event. Sir Claus Moser and his team of experts will now do their best to undo the damage, and to improve literacy with a door-to-door crusade. Should this admirable initiative succeed, it will mean that even fewer people use the libraries.

In fact, it will make libraries all but redundant. Those with newly acquired reading skills will all march off proudly to their nearest Waterstone's to buy an armful of books by Elton and Amis. The paradoxical truth is that we are more literate and more book-minded than ever before. More books are published each week than ever; the newspapers get fatter. If you read the merest fragment of the wares on offer, you would certainly not have time to join the drop-outs, tramps, toddlers, and few old-fashioned thriller-reading saddies like myself, who still patronise public libraries.