David Lister: The Week in Arts

Love in action - at a library near you
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The Independent Online

In Japan they have a network of places called Love Hotels. Married couples who wish to escape overcrowded households and large families use them to enjoy an afternoon of almost forgotten passion. These came into my mind when I saw this week that the arts minister David Lammy was launching Love Libraries. I had visions of officially sanctioned embraces behind the Biography shelves and unguarded passion down by Art and Architecture.

But in this case I think Love is being used as a verb. The Government is taking an initiative which will involve redesigning libraries, and even putting "marketing mentors" from publishing companies into selected libraries. I'm not sure what marketing mentors are, but if they were any good at marketing or mentoring, they could at least have mentored Mr Lammy away from launching his project on Budget Day, when he was unlikely to get much publicity.

I think that the poor image of libraries dates from that great Jimmy Stewart film, It's a Wonderful Life. When an angel shows Stewart's character what would have happened if he hadn't been born, one of the results was that his glamorous wife would have remained a dowdy librarian, complete with timid manner, lousy hairstyle and spectacles.

Mr Lammy's image-changing initiative includes giving three selected libraries a "makeover" and "using new technology to make the borrowing experience more personal and convenient including the ordering and renewal of books online". High-profile names have agreed to endorse the campaign. These include writers such as Caryl Phillips, Tracy Chevalier and my colleague Terence Blacker, who wrote about the importance of libraries earlier this week.

I share that belief in their importance, but I remain to be convinced that it is razzmatazz and redesign that libraries need most. What they need most is to be open. My local library was until recently closed every lunch hour - the one time that most people could use it. I checked yesterday, and it is now open during lunch hours but closed one full day in the week. Other council facilities such as swimming pools manage to be open every day. Why not libraries? Does Mr Lammy love swimming pools more than he loves libraries?

And libraries need staff. Online borrowing sounds very of the moment, but I'm always suspicious that online anything, be it banking or train ticket buying, generally leads to a reduction in human beings there to help you. Is online borrowing really "more personal" than a private chat with an expert? Browsing may be the number one joy of libraries, but seeking advice and guidance from a library assistant - preferably not of the It's a Wonderful Life variety - is the number two joy.

According to the press release, Mr Lammy's campaign is for "an inspiring new vision of a reading centred library service". It's good to know that libraries are going to be reading centred. If he does turn to swimming pools, he can make them swimming centred.

But I do agree that book borrowing and reading needn't mean that libraries have to be ultra quiet or stuffy. The campaign that Mr Lammy is spearheading has done some interesting research, which shows that 47 per cent of people would use libraries more if there were longer opening hours and coffee shops. And 55 per cent want a better selection of books. None, it seems, has asked for online borrowing.

So, let's have more books, libraries open six days a week including evenings, and coffee shops attached. Then one could really love libraries.

Back to the office for Motown

One of the more curious albums among the current crop of CD releases is a disc entitled Made to Measure. It is a selection of Tamla Motown classics chosen by the actor Martin Freeman.

The album is on the Motown label and has the weight of its marketing department behind it. Having been compiled to death over four decades, Tamla Motown clearly reckons that asking celebrities to make their personal selections is a way of getting some more mileage out of the back catalogue.

That's fair enough ... but why Martin Freeman? I can see that it might have been interesting to have the personal choices of Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson or Diana Ross. I can see that it might have been endearingly bizarre to have the selections of an international celebrity like Oprah Winfrey or even Kate Moss. But an actor from TV's The Office? He didn't even have the main part. Still, the album should do great business among Mr Freeman's friends and family.

* The English National Opera did its best to disown its former administration when it announced plans for its new season. The forthcoming opera about the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi, previously proclaimed as a way to encourage a younger and different audience, might not actually be the best vehicle to do that, said the new artistic director, John Berry. And, in a separate move, he reversed the plan of his predecessor Sean Doran to make Benjamin Britten the "house composer".

Regimes come and go everywhere, though seldom with such regularity as at English National Opera, and new regimes are entitled to cock a snook at the plans of previous regimes. But it is regrettable that the late Benjamin Britten should be kicked around like a political football in the ENO in-fighting. He deserves rather better than to be deemed worthy of a special honour one moment, and then unworthy the next. The ENO should show more respect.