Cather­ine Ben­nett

A great pub­lic ser­vice is be­ing run down by a state that prefers cost-cut­ting to cul­ture

The Observer - - News - Cather­ine Ben­nett

on the state van­dals de­stroy­ing li­braries

It is a fur­ther tri­umph for The Favourite, 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-book­bor­row­ers are sim­i­larly un­moved by the re­proaches of lead­ing writ­ers and li­brary cam­paign­ers. Im­pa­tience with li­braries may not, to the an­tilend­ing 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 wh o do value li­brarie s, 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

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion by Do­minic McKen­zie Eye,

@Ben­net­t_C_

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