Library services aren’t the sexiest items on a politician’s to do list. Although we may all agree that providing free books and access to information is a good thing, being able to read The Daily Telegraph in a public building isn’t exactly a matter of life and death.
Behind reducing the deficit, staying with or leaving the EU, who’ll give more to the NHS and even the environment (usually at the back of any queue of vote-winning issues) libraries are always doomed to be seen as a rather stodgy marginal issue.
Yet this attitude is born of ignorance about what libraries stand for, and how much they can offer society. They are both a route to learning, and therefore to future knowledge, and the repository of wisdom accrued over time, offering a connection to the past through their archives. Losing such archives represents a rift with history.
Two stories have illustrated this point with devastating effect this year. Both involved the destruction of library archives and irreplaceable materials. The first concerned the ransacking of the central library of Mosul in central Iraq. The atrocity was carried out by Islamic State and the burning of 100,000 books and manuscripts was described by UNESCO as “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history”.
Meanwhile, at home in our own liberal democracy, staff at Manchester Central Library disposed of 240,000 items in a library – from non-fiction books to pamphlets – as part of a £170m restoration programme. This was in spite of a high-profile protest by the likes of Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage and Jeanette Winterson. The action was described as “morally reprehensible” by the Friends of Manchester Library, who accused the council of failing in its public duty.
This may seem like a bathetic comparison. The destruction of ancient artefacts in Mosul is a loss to humanity as a whole, while the Manchester cull is a parochial matter. But it’s just the latest example of a short-sighted attitude to the function and responsibility of public libraries, and their vital role in our cultural life. They’re not just a resource for people who can’t afford to shop at Amazon, they are hardwired into our democratic heritage.
But there is sense that they are seen as an easy target for cutbacks. One glaring example is the Library of Birmingham. In 2013 the library was moved to a stunning new building in the city centre which was later shortlisted for the Stirling Prize for architecture. It was opened by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who almost died in pursuit of her education. Malala commented that “pens and books are the weapons that defeat terrorism” and writers like Philip Pullman and Irvine Welsh hailed the library as a testament to the nation’s commitment to its libraries and to literacy.
But in 2014 – just a year later – the library’s opening hours were cut, and its staffing almost halved. And this is part of a pattern. Over the past decade, the number of UK public libraries has been reduced by more than 500. Yet somehow, the dangers inherent in such cuts are being overlooked.
In 2014 the Independent Library Report for England praised libraries as a “golden thread” through our national life. While the report highlighted the importance of libraries and their social value, the only reforms suggested were the setting up of a task force and the introduction of a “national digital resource” to upgrade electronic services.
Is it a panacea for all library ills? Possibly not. According to the Office for National Statistics, 22 million UK households (84%) had internet access in 2014. This was an increase from 57% in 2006, but still means that more than four million households do not have such access – and these are likely to be the poorest and most disadvantaged people in society. They might use the library to access the internet they can’t use at home, but aren’t going to be interested in e-books.
Neither are the young necessarily digitally inclined - a 2013 survey found that 62% of 16 to 24-year-olds prefer print books to ebooks.
The internet offers a route to a mass of random and often inaccurate information. The filter of expertise, whether of a librarian or professional publisher, is absent. Even when mediated by a library portal, internet searching is a solitary experience, and to assume that actual libraries can be supplanted by virtual ones is premature. Both local historians and academic researchers rely on paper and print. Perhaps even more important, libraries offer human contact and personal support that the internet has not yet managed to replicate.
Finally – isn’t this election about democracy? Libraries are a natural home for local pressure groups and community forums, while the internet can be a place of trending hashtags and the zeitgeist as bully. Let’s hope that these unsung havens of study and self-actualisation don’t suffer yet again at the hands of our political leaders.