Random Thoughts: Libraries gave us power, we should use it effectively

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I’ve read a couple of things about the need to protect and fund libraries properly this morning. The first thing was Nikesh Shukla’s column in The Observer. The second was a Twitter thread by Stephen McGann, brought to my attention by Cathy of Cathy Reads Books.

McGann’s Twitter thread was easy for me to relate to. He uses language in it to paint a picture of worker education and culture that echoes my own upbringing and heritage. I’ve bookmarked his book at my local library, I was so impressed by the way he expressed his opinion. I’m slightly biased because McGann is an archive champion.

In contrast, Shukla’s column irritated me. I try to read his column every weekend because I admire what he is trying to do with The Good Literary Agency and The Good Journal, and yet what he puts into his column always annoys me in some way. Either he comes across as whiny and self-pitying or his writing on a subject feels like he’s dictated it to Google as a brain dump for immediate filing. I had an expectation of what he would do with the column, and it was probably a very white expectation. Not everything is for me or about me, I know. And as a friend pointed out to me recently, as we debated hotly the worth of unionisation and socialism generally (I’m always surprised when friends turn out not to be socialists), I’m not right about everything. (I am. Of course I am. Am I joking? Who knows?)

Shukla’s take on libraries annoyed me in a really petty way. It was the stereotypical reference to stacks of dusty books that initially got my goat. If you’re interested in championing libraries, it’s not helpful to make out that the staff who work there don’t do their jobs properly, even in jest. Libraries, and their sister entities archives which are also often described as dusty, exist in an economic environment where the slightest criticism or mistimed joke can add grist to the mill of cutbacks.

I also thought the rest of the article lacked cogency. Plus, and this is entirely subjective, it was lacking in the sort of righteous anger I expect someone who champions libraries to feel about the threats of closure.

Obviously, there are some places where cuts will mean libraries have shut and the nearest one isn’t hugely accessible. And I find that such a shame.

That last sentence. What a handwringer. The rest of the paragraph that quote comes from is no better. Come on, Shukla, where’s your fire?

He’s said himself that this column is an opportunity for an Asian writer to talk about things that matter to him. The column isn’t going to be renewed, suggesting that he hasn’t made the best use of that opportunity. Again, my expectation was that the opportunity he saw tallied more with an article he wrote eighteen months ago, or the things he said on Twitter in response to the recent CLPE report into BAME representation in children’s literature. My expectation was that Shukla would write about being an ‘almost’, a funny kind of Englishman, to let other British Asians know in a national newspaper that there is a place for them in the white dominated media and, yes, to make British Asians more visible to a white readership. He’s had success with the first bit, judging by the responses I’ve seen. Less so with the second bit. As I said above, though, not everything is for me or about me, even though my white privilege means I expect that to be the case. Boohoo. Poor me.

Shukla’s column this weekend refers to the benefits that he has enjoyed as a library user, and the benefits he encourages his daughters to enjoy. He talks about what libraries are beyond the lending of books.

Libraries provide so much to communities, from information and support, to free access to the internet, to entire worlds and universes contained in said dusty books. They are communal spaces and offer a basic level of support, community and knowledge that we should all have access to.

This is an argument that I have seen often. Sometimes it feels as though it’s used as a reason for the continued existence of libraries by an apologist who believes that their point is somehow controversial. Libraries have always been places of information and support, and community spaces, too. They have adapted in the face of the opinion formers and purse string holders telling them that they are irrelevant, bringing in new services, but never deviating from the central purpose of informing and supporting their community.

If we want to keep our libraries, we need to use them. Is that so radical? If they don’t offer what we want, we need to get involved so that they can. My local library runs a monthly film night. The city centre library near where I work has set up partnerships with two of the city’s universities and the BFI, and offers facilities and advice to people setting up in business. It’s no use just moaning and saying that it’s a shame when a library closes, or a wealthy individual steps in to provide the funding to keep the libraries in their city open. Although, in the current political climate, my personal ideology aside, I’m pleased that some wealthy individuals are still possessed of a certain level of altruism – the Victorian philanthropic model that Cameron and Osborne paid lipservice to when stating that austerity in government would lead to philanthropy by the wealthy was predicated on the Victorian rich trying to find ways to get a camel through the eye of a needle and themselves into heaven, something that rarely inspires your average post-Thatcher, post-Reagan millionaire. Cameron and Osborne knew this. They never expected philanthropists to step forward and fill the void in public sector funding.

The title of this post refers to the Manic Street Preachers’ song A Design for Life. Libraries do give us power. Particularly the working classes. That’s why those on the right of politics don’t want them to be universally accessible. Because when we are well informed, that’s when we can challenge their version of the truth. Yes, the internet brings information to us in the blink of an eye (subject to bandwidth), but the internet is unregulated. A library has people in it whose job is to advise and help us to make sense of the knowledge contained within the walls of the library. I agree with Shukla that they are a right not a luxury.

Here’s the root of my belief that libraries are a societal right: up until my parents’ generation, my family were cotton mill workers and cotton weavers. My grandparents on both sides weren’t given the option of continuing their education. They left school to work in the cotton mills. But they read, they joined the library, they informed themselves about the world. My mum used to tell me about going to the library for her parents when she still had a junior ticket and, as a reward, being allowed to take out one adult book on each of their tickets for her to read. They wanted her to be informed too. My dad’s parents had books in the house as well as borrowing books from the library. Knowledge, as McGann says in his Twitter thread, was a mark of self-respect. Both my parents passed the 11+, gaining places at their local grammar schools. While neither of them had university in their educational futures, both escaped the cotton mills. Dad became an apprentice draughtsman in an engineering firm, mum a library assistant. Their children, me, my sister and my brother, were exposed to reading from the age of three. My mum brought books home from the library and taught each of us to read. I can’t remember not being able to read. My sister and I went to university and entered professions. We’re technically middle class now. My brother became an apprentice printer, then a lithographer. When the recession dealt a severe blow to the printing industry, he retrained as an HGV driver. He’s still working class and he’s the best informed person in his workplace. He reads books on politics for pleasure.

Out of all of us, I’m the only one who still uses a library. We all still read, but my sister and brother buy their books. I buy books, too, and I had a long period of not using a library. The recession and the government’s policy of austerity as a way to balance the economy shook me out of that habit. I live in a borough of Greater Manchester. The library services across Greater Manchester have a shared catalogue, and library members in one borough can have their library card added to the system of any of the other boroughs. So I can borrow from more than one library authority, which means I have no excuse for not using the library. I’m also fortunate that there’s a library at the museum where I work and I borrow books from there as well.

A friend of mine is the child of a librarian. She has given up using the library because she’s too busy to get her books back on time or renew them online, and has concluded that, for the amount of money she has spent on fines, she might as well just buy books. She lends a lot of the books to me, but part of me (also busy, but never too busy to return or renew a book) wishes she could be less busy and get her kids into the library habit.

My parents and grandparents were busy, working 8 hour days, bringing children up. I know my mum had an advantage in being a library assistant, surrounded by books that it was her job to encourage people to read, but my grandparents didn’t. From what mum used to say about her early experiences of going to the library (it was a village away, she’d usually walk or cycle there), borrowing books that opened up a bigger world was a privilege for her and her family. Perhaps that’s something we’ve lost sight of, as with so many things. Perhaps the generations that have followed my parents and grandparents, that have been empowered by libraries and left the working class world behind, are so comfortable now that we believe everyone is as comfortable as us, and can buy a book whenever they want to. But not everybody can and if only the people who can’t afford to buy books use libraries, then the rest of us are endangering their access by choosing not to use libraries too.

If we lose our libraries, we’ll all be impoverished by their loss. Just because you choose not to use a library and therefore think you shouldn’t need to pay towards its upkeep doesn’t mean that you won’t get some kind of benefit from its existence. Because someone who got where they are today with the help of their local library might fix your car, install your central heating, or replace that faulty valve in your heart.

That’s my opinion anyway.

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