Mary Dejevsky: Our view of libraries is sepia-tinted

Friday 04 March 2011 01:00 GMT

Some things are so patently wholesome and good that you naturally shy away from looking for imperfections. And when two such treasures come together, you challenge their combined clout at your peril.

Yet when Alan Bennett, patron saint of playwrights and the north of England, denounces plans for the closure of children's libraries in North Yorkshire as tantamount to "child abuse", there is really only one rational response: Come off it, Alan. To call his accusation "a bit strong", as the council's director of services did, was timid in the extreme.

Then again, he probably did not want to offend either party. For if Bennett is beyond criticism in his native habitat, public libraries are still more so. And children's libraries – well, anything prefaced with "children's" is sacrosanct these days – have that particular aura of gentility that guarantees an instant outpouring of articulate outrage if the word "closure" is so much as whispered. As Bennett put it, with the certainty of the self-righteous, closing libraries "delays children's capacity to read and learn, and once that damage has been done, it can't be undone".

Now I have some modest form in opposing cuts to libraries. There were plans, when I was a student, to downgrade or amalgamate (I forget), the Russian and Slavonic section of the main modern languages library at Oxford. Before Freedom of Information was even dreamt of, a few of us winkled out the comparative figures for undergraduates and research students registered as readers and showed that the funding for the Slavonic section was far less, proportionately, than for French, German and Spanish, largely because it had not kept pace with increased numbers of research students. The librarian was duly appreciative.

So I am all in favour of libraries – or I was then, in those distant pre-internet days. In the vexed case of Local Authorities v Vocal Library Supporters, however, I find it hard to drum up sufficient indignation to join a picket line. Maybe I have missed something, but I would dearly love to see a social break-down of attendance at children's libraries. I have yet to see any decent figures that would make the case for keeping all existing public libraries open. Is the number of readers growing, or even stable? How does it compare with 10 or 20 years ago? And if they count visitors, are they counting those who just come to use the internet or take out DVDs, as opposed to borrowing books?

And, yes, I think that does matter. Most of those campaigning to keep public libraries open seem to have that sepia-tinted, wood-panelled image of the public library as a haven of scholarship and silence – the sort of place where the impoverished young Andrew Carnegie set his life's course. I share that nostalgia; for those of us of a certain age and upbringing, fortnightly visits to the library remain a shared national experience.

Somewhere I still have a few old-style library tickets (blue for children, yellow for adults, and I think even a distinction for fiction and non-fiction). They conjure up that whole world: the hush at the entrance, the librarians with their sensible hair-dos and sensible shoes, and the neat boxes where tickets were filed.

But neither life nor libraries are like that any more. Public libraries belong to a time when books were far rarer and more expensive than they are today, when bedrooms had no heating, and when library books were one of the only gateways to other worlds.

That many urban libraries have already abandoned the silence and recast themselves as internet cafés, community "hubs" or purveyors of videos, with a little book-lending on the side, shows them moving with the times. But if it's going to be a choice between the public swimming pool and the library, there is no contest. I can surf the Web, I can buy a book (or pick one up for 50p at a charity shop), but I can't build and maintain my own pool.

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