Spending Cuts and Library Culture

The Bookshelf

The Bookshelf

My attention was drawn yesterday to a serious and thoughtful speech by the author Philip Pullman, which I think deserves as much publicity as possible. He was talking about threats in Oxfordshire to local library facilities as a consequence of the recent local government spending cuts. Pullman presents an articulate and impassioned case for the value of libraries.

He also makes some interesting observations about the insidious nature of the all-pervasive bidding culture which has developed within society in recent decades. Anyone who has been involved in putting together a bid for funds will know all too well the time, expertise, resource, determination and focus required on the part of the bidding organisation. The idea that all local communities are equally well-placed to submit bids for their local library provision is laughable.

But it’s the wider implications of where this culture is going that disturbs me and so many others. Access to libraries is just one aspect of broader culture which is simply not always capable of market analysis in traditional business terms. Trying to value it in those terms is not only absurd but potentially disastrous for society: learning is part of our humanity; music and the arts are at the core of what makes us human.

I loved Pullman’s recollections of the libraries of his life. My library experiences began in the gloomy somewhat forbidding interior of the Chester city central library. In the manner of its time, it wasn’t particularly child-friendly, but its stacks of children’s books were a tantalising delight for me, and visits to borrow books were an exciting part of my early childhood. By the time I was seven, we had moved, and my next library haunt was a small carpeted room attached to the local school. It had a complete set of the Colour Fairy books. A few years later, my grim comprehensive school experience was lightened by a wonderful school library where I devoured French editions of Alexandre Dumas. The next stop was the Law Library at Birmingham university; enticing stacks of ancient leather-bound books but sadly not the most gripping of reading material. And in recent years, the magnificent old arts library in Leeds where I had the joyous experience of pulling off the shelves and reading a nineteenth century edition of M.E. Chevreul‘s magnificent work on colour theory (1839). My current favourite library is the Henry Moore Institute library in Leeds. It is a local treasure.

I love books. I adore libraries. No matter how much time I spend online in the day, I can’t go to sleep without turning a page. So I admit to nothing less than complete subjectivity in anything I say on this topic. But I would genuinely like to know: is there really any convincing counter-view on this subject?

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