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Save Our Libraries Day

February 5, 2011

by Judy Cumberbatch

Are public libraries an unaffordable luxury?

As I look at a little girl in a pink flowery mac, proudly clutching her book, as she leaves Islington Central Library today, I can’t help thinking what a wonderful thing a library is and what a terrible place the world would be without them.

When I was a child, living in the far north of Ghana, the arrival of any unusual car or truck in the hospital compound, where my father worked, was the cause of excitement. There were two vehicles, in particular, which I can still vividly remember, the large square-backed, dark green mobile dentistry which  left such an abiding memory on me that I still feel  a pang of disquiet when I see something similar. The other was the mobile library.

It came every three months and parked outside the outpatients department in the shade of a tree.  We would line up in the hot sun and then when it came to our turn, mount the three steps into the van. Inside it smelt of books, felt books, was books, tiers of them, neatly shelved, treasures waiting to be found. We were allowed fifteen books at a time and I would spend ages pulling titles out, replacing them and pulling them out again until it was time to leave. Then I would scurry home with my booty, trying to work out which one to read first, before immersing myself  in a magical world of stories, people and landscapes that were far distant from the world I was living in.

I have loved libraries ever since, not just iconic places like the great round reading room of the old British Library and ancient college libraries, which I have been lucky enough to visit, but public libraries up and down the British Isles, from those that open only a couple of days a week, to others housing rich archives of materials on anything from local history to shipbuilding.

Today, on Save Our Libraries Day, I realize how much I take my library for granted. I hardly ever think about how lucky I am to have it; I pop in whenever I want, order much of what I want or just browse. But  for how much longer? Libraries have become a threatened resource, no longer regarded as an essential and ever present part of our communities.  In some areas, they are being closed completely. Most are seeing their budgets, staff and holdings cut right back.

Once libraries are closed, they will not be opened again and many of tomorrow’s children, let alone adults, will never know the joy of taking a book out from the library.

I’ll leave the last word to Philip Pullman, who, as ever, puts the point so well:

I love the public library service for what it did for me as a child and as a student and as an adult. I love it because its presence reminds us that there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about, things that have the power to baffle the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism, things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Children's Author permalink
    February 7, 2011 9:34 pm

    Judy – great post! I also obviously love libraries and spent every Saturday with my Dad and siblings perusing the endless possibilities for escape into storyland. I cannot believe what is going on but love Mark Brown’s blog on it – go here for full rundown of various petitions, protests – both online and off.

  2. Alison Allen-Gray permalink
    February 9, 2011 1:55 pm

    What a vivid picture you paint of your history of book-loving. It really does feel like a crucial moment if libraries are to be saved for future generations – as has been said, once they’re gone, they won’t come back. Thanks for the info about the petitions!

  3. Prem Beggs permalink
    February 10, 2011 9:46 am

    Thank you for your article. Browsing quietly among books , the thrill of recognition when a book calls to you, and the privilege of being allowed to take it away, then return and do it all over again – what a joyous process! My children loved the weekly trip to the library, and were introduced there to many of their favourite writers.
    Now I’m housebound and bedbound;, for now (though for how long?) The At Home Service spreads its net all over the city for me and brings me its catch – I spend the intervening three weeks immersed in other worlds, until the library returns with more treasure.
    It would be nice if those motivated by money woke up to the realisation that our libraries don’t belong to them – they belong to us, and to future generations.

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