The nation's libraries are dying from neglect

The way a country treats its libraries is a reliable indicator of how civilised and free it is
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The Independent Online

Of all the different types of schoolteacher, the Hitlers and the hippies are most easy to identify. The fearsome, grey-haired woman who led her class into a book-filled hut in a deprived area outside a large city in the north of England was undoubtedly a Hitler. She made her charges sit in straight lines in front of the visiting author. When I suggested a more relaxed arrangement, she fixed me with a gimlet eye and said, "At our school, the ethic is to sit down and listen. That is what we shall do." She then took a seat at the back of the group. Within five minutes, she was fast asleep.

Of all the different types of schoolteacher, the Hitlers and the hippies are most easy to identify. The fearsome, grey-haired woman who led her class into a book-filled hut in a deprived area outside a large city in the north of England was undoubtedly a Hitler. She made her charges sit in straight lines in front of the visiting author. When I suggested a more relaxed arrangement, she fixed me with a gimlet eye and said, "At our school, the ethic is to sit down and listen. That is what we shall do." She then took a seat at the back of the group. Within five minutes, she was fast asleep.

The incident was memorable less because of the old bat of a teacher than because of its setting. The hut where I was speaking, a battered prefab whose outside walls had been burnt the previous week by an incompetent arsonist, was a local library. From what I heard from the children that morning, it was clear that, for some of them at least, the dingy, ill-appointed building was a refuge, a place where, for an hour or so, they could step out of their lives and into other worlds of possibility and adventure.

Libraries, of course, are rarely glamorous places. Even those that are half-adequately equipped and decorated - scandalously few, we have discovered this week - are hardly significant vote-winners. Taken for granted by national politicians, scrimped of funds by local councillors, they tend to be regarded as a generally good thing, an institution to be supported by a few warm words around election time but never by serious injections of cash.

As for those who work in them, librarians are accepted as steady, salt-of-the-earth types rather than the civic heroes they are. There are no places for them among the plucky teachers, gallant firemen, multiple foster-mums and nurses with hearts of gold who appear at TV award ceremonies in which the work of ordinary members of the public is celebrated by the proverbial "host of celebrities".

Yet keeping an under-funded service going, dealing with the vagaries of local government and trying to co-operate with schools, they do as much to spread literacy, knowledge and entertainment where it is most needed as any other profession in the country.

During the dark years of Tory rule, there were serious attempts to infect the library service with the killer bug of privatisation. Smooth types from the Adam Smith Institute would appear on Newsnight to argue that libraries were only used by the middle class.

There was a small fuss. The Opposition was outraged and backbenchers testified to the influence of libraries in their own lives. When Labour came to power, there were indications that the service would no longer languish. Libraries were "street-corner universities", an arts minister said in 1998. They were "providing real opportunities for everyone regardless of their place in society".

Later, something called the People's Network brought an element of excitement to the service. Information was the way to the future, said Tony Blair; the internet would be brought to over 400 branches. Heart-warming accounts of a new kind of library service emerged. Ninety-year-old grandmas were e-mailing one another. The self-employed were setting up businesses on the internet. Immigrants (the Government would probably go a little easy on this boast now) were learning English through computers.

Unfortunately, in the way of grand initiatives, the People's Network concealed more than it revealed. The new machines might have been fine but the institutions which accommodated them were not.

An all-party Select Committee has just reported that the state of the library service in 2005 is "a scandal that must be rectified". A backlog of badly needed repairs is costed at £650m and rising. The rate of book acquisitions is going down. Library buildings are crumbling and are often profoundly uninviting places to visit.

It seems there is a complete lack of political will here. The Select Committee found that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport had simply failed to act as a champion for libraries within government.

Would it be too much to hope that, as an election approaches, both parties wake up to the fact that a great and important public service is in danger of dying from neglect? The answer is not to come up with eye-catching stunts but to commit Treasury or lottery money to a significant investment in the basic infrastructure. Its fate affects a large number of people - there are 323 million visits paid to libraries a year - but is more than a matter of practicalities.

The way in which a country treats its libraries, librarians and readers is a reliable indicator of how civilised and free it is as a society. In Cuba, the government has given independent librarians long jail sentences. America's Patriot Act allows the FBI to scrutinise the library borrowings of any reader it deems suspect. Here, it seems, we are in danger of betraying future generations by allowing our libraries to moulder away through political indifference and financial meanness.

terblacker@aol.com

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