Yesterday at one of the early heats in the national Debating Matters competition, the motion was There is no longer a need for public libraries. The argument in favour was that technology has rendered the need for public repositories of books, redundant. Kindles and the proliferation of electronically published titles provide readers with the same choice and user experience as a library while saving time, space, public cost, and trees.
Hmm, I thought: blowing kisses to a loved one on Skype conveys the same set of emotions as pulling them close and covering their face in kisses, but whatever the saving, is it the same user experience?
This morning, the Today programme ran a feature on the children’s writer Richard Scarry. The designer, Sir Paul Smith, has created a new cover for Scarry’s classic Cars and Trucks and Things that Go. The book has sold more than 100 million copies. There was much discussion about the way he used colour in the illustrations, creating distinctive visual characters to match the lively copy.
Children love handling books, tracing the pictures and trying to make sense of big print words. In libraries they’ll pull four or five books off the shelves simultaneously, sharing and snatching and watching each other. They congregate for stories. I still remember being read The Hobbit during carpet time at primary school. Reading is portrayed as a solitary activity, but more often than we think it is a shared experience in a shared space. It’s why book groups proliferate and why, at Tricycle Readers, literary criticism has taken on the form of continuing personal development.
The argument against the motion for closing libraries, touched on all these points. Libraries are dedicated to life long learning with specialists on hand to help. They are a statement of a society’s aspiration. The demographic for library use is evenly split between social classes, underscoring the value of education and knowledge as a social leveller. For those who cannot afford books or technology, the library provides a rich diversity of content with freedom of access and advice. For those who can afford books and technology, the library provides exactly the same.
My children have grown up in houses with literally hundreds of books on the shelves and all forms of screen. Where did they go to study during exam season? They went to our local library because it was a space dedicated to thinking and to learning. It was a place where people congregated as equals in knowledge, whether reading, working from, or borrowing, books. Until, that is, Brent Council closed our local library to save time, space, public cost, and trees.
I’m guessing the trees. I don’t recall their mention in the council’s ruminations.