The vandals destroying libraries should have the book thrown at them
It is a further triumph for <Italic>The Favourite</Italic>, with 12 Bafta nominations, to have propelled Ophelia Field’s 2002 biography of Sarah Churchill, the favourite in question, to the heights of Amazon’s gay and lesbian biography list.
Anne Somerset’s 2012 biography of Queen Anne is also likely to benefit, as people attempt to discover more about the extraordinary incidents depicted in Yorgos Lanthimos’s film. How did 18th-century politicians train their racing ducks? Did Queen Anne ever get treatment for her raging bulimia? What became of Anne’s 17 little rabbits? And did Sarah really dress up as a highwayman – because it’s certainly not in Wikipedia?
Whether or not either book is able to gratify this surge of curiosity, you can’t but think how convenient it would be if people could go somewhere to have a quick read or do some minor fact-checking, particularly if the alternative is a contribution to the obscene profits shortly to be divided between Mr and Mrs “loving exploration” Bezos.
Such a system could further serve the growing number of people, like Marie Kondo, who find books repellently messy and members of another demographic (though its existence is still unacknowledged by some of the lending-averse) who, though they like reading, are too hard up to buy books on impulse.
What if there were places where you could simply take a book about Queen Anne or the Duchess of Marlborough off the shelf, at no charge, borrow it if you wanted? Then do the same thing with other books, possibly with suggestions for further reading from qualified staff ? The bookshelves might be complemented with other services, cultural and not, say, internet access, places to study, literacy help, citizen advice, children’s literature, book events, activities for schools, with newspapers and magazines for people who can’t afford them? Obviously, they’d need funding to attract imaginative leadership. You might call these civilised learning and meeting places, for example, libraries.
Admittedly, it’s not a new idea. At some point – it is probably in some book or other – someone historical came up with something similar and there are still some 3,600 libraries surviving in Great Britain (700 have closed in a decade), along with more than 8 million active borrowers. But clearly not for long, since the country’s remaining services continue, according to recent reports, under attack: budgets slashed, hours reduced, low on trained, if deplorably paid, staff, propped up by 51,000 volunteers and, perhaps most dismal, regarded as disposable by national government.
Officially responsible for providing a “comprehensive” library service, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has consistently evaded exposure for its dereliction by blaming local authorities, whose funding has been cut by £15bn in 10 years. So much so that little lasting damage has been done, for instance, to the reputation of Ed Vaizey, the former libraries minister, even though he presided, from 2010, over unprecedented cuts in library service, pronouncing himself “not minded” to intervene (a stance for which he had earlier attacked Andy Burnham). At about the same time, Chris Grayling was denying books to prisoners.
A painful Today programme double act, featuring Vaizey and Michael Gove, recently suggested that the two may have been too beguiled by their own “banter” (Gove’s word) to notice what they were doing to the cultural fabric of communities. Either way, the library banterer’s sacking in 2016 was represented, notwithstanding his pitiful legacy, as a brutal loss to the arts world. Happily for Vaizey and his successors, many fellow non-book-borrowers are similarly unmoved by the reproaches of leading writers and library campaigners. Impatience with libraries may not, to the anti-lending tendency, appear an unlovely clue to a person’s cultural and social sensibility, so much as attractively modern.
Reports of closures are routinely accompanied with comments about preferring Kindles, from people who don’t need technical help, thank you, and therefore conclude that libraries – it’s not as if they’ve noticed any of the other duties keeping staff busy or the queues to go in – are finished. Contributions to these online debates from the millions of users who do value libraries, many of them much older, much younger, poorer, less technically/administratively competent, or just cold or lonely, are naturally less prominent.
Analysis of the latest, dismal library figures from Cipfa (the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy), showing a halved wage bill since 2010, met with another chorus of “So what?” from Amazon fans, eg: “You could always buy your children books,” suggests one. On that principle, the well-nourished could argue, of food banks, that all normal people use Deliveroo.
The case for neglect has been further portrayed, again usefully for flaky providers, as responsive to the social trends that leave people isolated, but online. In a document, featured by Private Eye, which should really be entitled, in homage to King Lear’s Regan, “What Need One?, Essex county council proposes, along with the recruitment of countless volunteers, a reduced library service “without walls”. Should actual books feature, “customers may be able to pick items from an outlet in a local shop or leisure centre”.
Whatever is happening in Essex, these particular “items” are popular enough, elsewhere, to support a recovery in independent itemshops, and the flourishing of item festivals and item events and item groups, where “reading materials” (Essex’s other word for items) bring people physically, creatively together. If bookshops, book sales and book events can thrive, why – if it’s not their broken budgets, dependence on volunteers and devaluing by the very department and authorities that should prize and cultivate them – can’t public libraries?
The death of reading – prematurely announced or not – is habitually attributed to social media. It’s unfair, really. Because nobody has worked as doggedly to this end, as unsentimentally, and with a greater commitment to the suppression of literacy, than our own Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
Libraries aren’t just collections of ‘reading material’. Above, the information desk in a Stockportlibrary. Photograph: travelib / Alamy/Alamy
Ed Vaizey, Conservative MP and former cultureminister, was ‘not minded’ to interveneon behalf of libraries. Photograph: Sarah Leefor the Guardian