True Gripes: Theme libraries: Suddenly books are secondary

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The Independent Online
You've heard the British Library saga? In the borough of Lewisham we have our own version.

The council is closing its purpose-built central library, an attractive

terracotta-fronted building of 1900, nicely laid out on one floor with a ramp for wheelchairs and 25 free parking spaces of its own, and moving it to an anonymous former BT office block, on three floors, with no parking spaces. Apparently this is progress.

According to the council's publicity, the new library will include the following facilities: CDs and cassettes; disability information centre; community room; arts service; coffee shop; large print and talking books; arts and crafts display area; open learning centre; baby feeding room; women's toilets with baby changing facilities; local history centre; reference and local history work room; men's toilets with baby changing facilities. There will also, space permitting, be a few books.

I suppose we should be thankful for that. The thing is, I like books, and I like reading. I'm not sure that modern libraries feel the same. Reference libraries in particular seem to be defining themselves as places where children go for help with their course work, and for that you soon won't need books: just a terminal, a telephone line and almost limitless money.

If the world were like a multiple-choice questionnaire, that would be all you'd ever need, but it's not. The rest of us will need books and the conditions in which to sit quietly and read them.

Unfortunately, some libraries seem less than enthusiastic about continuing to provide those conditions. Already, our existing library plays host to a bewildering variety of 'events', from art workshops to bogus New Age 'self-healing sessions. The new library promises to be a veritable fun-palace. The librarians are probably in training with Ronald McDonald.

Of course, the excuse is always the same. The libraries need to be approachable, accessible. If you get people in to watch a clog-dancing display or pick up a leaflet on the mobility allowance, perhaps they'll accidentally pick up a book.

But libraries aren't supposed to be fun. I want a library like the one Hancock visited to get Lady Don't Fall Backwards by D'Arcy Sarto, with old ladies lugging string bags full of Catherine Cookson and fearsome librarians silently mouthing the word 'shush. And if schoolchildren come in, I want them to be sure of finding somewhere they can work in peace, away from the television and family life.

And if I want a coffee shop, I'll go and find one.

John Morrish