Some words of qualified thanks are due to the New York Police Department. Its officers have just reminded the world that reading is a political matter. As part of its operation to clear the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, the NYPD dismantled and comprehensively trashed the protesters' library of 5,554 books, chucking them in dumpster trucks and, when it started to rain, refusing to allow them to be covered by plastic bags. As the lorries departed with their shameful cargo, an unusual chant was heard from the crowd. It went: "Books! Books! Books!"
The heavy-handed cops may well have done more for the cause of libraries everywhere than any protest campaign. They have shown that the case against destroying a community's access to book s is not simply that it is cultural vandalism and a betrayal of future generations, but that it is a blow against independence of thought. Libraries are a communal source of intellectual freedom.
Who would have thought that in 2011 it would be necessary to point out that, in a divided, alienated society, where standards of literacy are scandalously low and escape from poverty and hopelessness is more difficult than ever, books are more than just another public service? Yet it has taken a long, dogged campaign by members of the public to get a High Court judge to declare this week that a decision by the councils of Gloucestershire and Somerset to withdraw funding from a significant number of their public libraries was unfair to the deprived, vulnerable and disadvantaged.
The judge's message needs to be repeated wherever comfortable vested interests are in power. The Libraries minister, Ed Vaizey, was full of warm words and promises while in opposition but has been utterly indifferent in office, seemingly invisible whenever decisions are needed. Local councils have seen libraries as an easy option when it comes to cuts. Even privileged institutions have begun to behave as if printed books are some kind of old-fashioned luxury – to its shame, the public school Wellington College has been disposing of many of its books in favour of computers.
The excuses for this war on the printed book tend to be financial or technical: even if we can afford to supply the public with books, the bound, paper version is out of date. As the Occupy Wall Street library shows, intellectual freedom still depends on the portable, printed book. Even the idea of the internet itself was inspired by that great hippie volume The Whole Earth Catalogue.
Dissent has become trickier, the corporation – online, in national life, on the high street – is more powerful. Whether in a tent or a council building, libraries offer a vital alternative to the status quo. Perhaps that is why government, councils and the police are so oddly relaxed about their destruction.