On the side of the angels in the library

BOOK REVIEW; LIBRARIES IN A WORLD OF CULTURAL CHANGE Liz Greenhalgh and Ken Worpole with Charles Landry UCL Press, pounds 30 hardback, pounds 10.95 paperback
Click to follow
The defence of public libraries is one of the few domestic cultural issues to have brought intellectuals into the public arena these past few years. So conditions must be bad there. Since library funding belongs to the underbelly of some councils' thinking, and since the Government is toying with the idea of privatising them, libraries need all the defenders they can find.

Libraries in a World of Cultural Change, "the first independent study of the public library network in Britain for more than 50 years", goes some way to meeting that need by listing most of the important facts and trends. It corrects excessive depression: in spite of all the depredations, 300 new libraries were opened in the Eighties and a lot of lively new directions taken. The authors are particularly strong on the importance of libraries as open, democratic, central community facilities, "places that recognise the rights and interests of the private individual in a public world".

So the book is on the side of the angels. But two-dimensional angels. The authors are resolutely democratic and communitarian. They set their compass chiefly by the echo. That soon edges towards populism. They are unwilling to confront questions of value, questions not resolvable by head-counting of received taste.

Thus they discuss the vast amounts of "popular fiction" provided bylibraries. They assume they must entirely defend readers' taste and the libraries' unquestioning satisfaction with it. Their defence is feeble because they have no tools for judgement, other than the populist. Yet there is a "non- elitist" way of tackling this question. CS Lewis pointed to it 30 years ago in An Experiment in Criticism, but either the authors do not know that book or are unwilling to face its implications. If those of us on the left are so nervous of seeming "judgemental" we will end by implicitly propping up the low-level capitalist persuaders.

The essential third dimension is: of all British cultural achievements those in literature are the greatest. That body of work, spanning several centuries, is a magnificent imaginative exploration of our own culture and of the value-rich texture of all our lives. Nothing becomes us more.

It should therefore be indisputable that our public libraries should have this achievement at the heart of their provision. To ignore this unfashionable fact; to take refuge, as some librarians do, in phrases such as: "What elitists call the canon is no more than an expression of bourgeois culture"; is a treason of the clerks. These authors do not go that far but neither do they face this canker in library thinking. Some librarians hide behind the fact that the Library Act does not require them to pay attention to "literary" books. The Arts Council encourages librarians to give a place to "good literature". That's like laymen urging the churches to promote spirituality.

Our language always defines us. This book uses much mealy-mealy, PR prose: "This kind of scenario ... means a recognition that strategy formation needs to be flexible, anticipatory and experimental"; and "In this scenario, questions of aesthetics [ie judgements of value] appear to become redundant". Such prose, and the limited approach it signifies, cannot rise to the height of this great argument.

Richard Hoggart