Stef Penney has just won the Costa Book of the Year prize for a first novel about Canada, having never visited the country. An agoraphobic, she did all her research, she said, in the British Library. Which should say all that needs to be said about British libraries in general, and the British Library in particular.
Only it isn't all that needs to be said. The British Library is now facing a cut of 7 per cent in its annual £100m budget and is considering introducing charges and shorter hours to pay for it. Across the country local libraries are also feeling the squeeze, cutting staff and book purchases. What was once one of the glories of Victorian philanthropy, and that particular Victorian passion to make the fruits of learning available to every class, is now being treated as a remnant from the past, a residual of other, more important cultural and sports policies. Indeed the cuts to the British Library's budget are being directly attributed to the growing cost of the Olympics. The elite arts must make room for more popular pastimes.
This is quite the wrong way of looking at the problem. Inevitably at a time of pinched public expenditure, choices must be made. But you can't treat libraries, and in particular the British Library, as a simple arts expenditure. The point of the institution is that it is a repository of knowledge, of equal use to scientists as to writers and historians, a resource that anyone with a valid reason can access. And the same is true in a different way with the local library, where any member of the public can seek the relevant book and take it home.
Now it is perfectly true that the internet has revolutionised the way in which we can access knowledge and the amount of information readily available to anyone with the necessary equipment. For the specific search and the generalised scan, the internet far surpasses the library in the speed and efficiency of the operation. Microsoft's project to digitalise the British Library's out-of-copyright works, and Google's Book Search programme, are examples of the drive to make knowledge freely available to all. In another 10 or 20 years it will be possible to search on the internet virtually every book published in whatever language.
But it is precisely because of this that we need to preserve libraries to make sure that the books have a home and that those who wish to handle, to read and to develop knowledge from the page can do so. This is not some hobby of the rich. Just look at the latest figures of library-lending by Public Lending Right. It is the popular authors that dominate, but also the children's books. So long as knowledge and stories are put into written form, the libraries will have a place. They're the last things that should be cut as the iron bonds of public expenditure are tightened.