Market fanatics will kill what makes our libraries precious
Those who count only profit do not grasp the value of a service whose gift is humane, generous, and life-enhancing for all
The public library service offers children a chance to discover a love of books and the characters in them. Photograph: Don McPhee for the Guardian
The government, in the Dickensian person of Mr Eric Pickles, has cut the money it gives to local government, and passed on the responsibility for making the savings to local authorities. Some have decided to protect their library service, others have hacked into theirs like fanatics. In Oxfordshire we are threatened with the closure of 20 out of our 43 public libraries. The leader of the county council says cuts are inevitable, and invites us to suggest what we would do instead. Would we sacrifice care for the elderly? Or would youth services feel the axe?
I don’t think we should accept his invitation. It’s not our job to cut services. It’s his job to protect them. Nor do I think we should respond to the fatuous idea that libraries can stay open if they’re staffed by volunteers. Is the job of a librarian so empty that anyone can step up and do it for a thank you and a cup of tea? And who are these volunteers? Who are these people whose time spreads out in front of them like the limitless steppes of central Asia, who have no families to look after, no jobs to do, no responsibilities, and yet are so wealthy they can commit hours every week to working for nothing?
But there’s a prize being dangled in front of these imaginary volunteers. People who want to save their library are going to be “allowed to bid” for money from a central pot. This bidding culture sets one community, one group, one school, against another. If one wins, the other loses. It’s imported the worst excesses of market fundamentalism into the one part of our public and social life that used to be free of the commercial pressure to win or to lose, to survive or to die, which is the very essence of the religion of the market.
Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life. We’re coming to see that old Karl Marx had his finger on the heart of the matter when he pointed out that the market in the end will destroy everything we thought was safe and solid. “Everything solid melts into air,” he said. “All that is holy is profaned.”
Market fundamentalism, this madness that’s infected the human race, is like a greedy ghost that haunts the boardrooms and council chambers and committee rooms from which the world is run these days. The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re set up to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for everything?
The theory says they must do such-and-such, so they do it, never mind the human consequences, never mind the social cost, never mind the terrible damage to the fabric of everything decent and humane. I’m afraid these fundamentalists of one sort or another will always be with us. We just have to keep them as far as possible from power.
I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don’t know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, and share their adventures in your own imagination.
No one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?
Somewhere in Blackbird Leys, somewhere in Berinsfield, somewhere in Botley, somewhere in Benson or in Bampton, to name only the communities beginning with B whose libraries are going to be abolished, there are children who only need to make that discovery to learn that they too are citizens of the republic of reading. Only the public library can give them that gift.
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.
Leave the libraries alone. You don’t know the value of what you’re looking after. It is too precious to destroy.