Sunday, January 23, 2011

Watch out - our libraries are living on borrowed time

Libraries are not just another public service - they have the power to change lives, says Robert Colvile in The Telegraph, 20 January 2011

Local libraries have introduced children to Asterix for decades
There is a scene in Downton Abbey in which Isobel Crawley, played by Penelope Wilton, arrives at the cottage hospital. Except that the building on screen isn’t actually a cottage hospital, but something that could soon be equally rare: a local library. My local library, to be precise. And soon, it could be gone.

In response to the need for cuts, Oxfordshire county council wants to axe 20 of its 43 libraries. Among them is a small stone building in Bampton, the archetypally English village that doubled as Downton for ITV. For me, the library was almost a second home, where my lifelong love of Asterix – and of reading, generally – was kindled. The thought of its closure causes quite extraordinary pain.

Lord Fellowes, Downton Abbey’s writer, and a prominent defender of his own local libraries, is quick to commiserate. “In a village like that, a library has a real function,” he says. “There was someone quoted the other day as saying they’re for the white middle classes. But that’s exactly who they’re not principally for, particularly in the country.”

That is a point that the villagers will be quick to make. But they won’t be alone. Across the country, more than 400 libraries are on the chopping block – and everywhere, informal coalitions are assembling to defend them. The residents of Stony Stratford, in Milton Keynes, borrowed every single one of their library’s 16,000 books to highlight how much they valued it.
Is this just special pleading by the middle classes? No – because libraries are not just another public service. They are a physical embodiment of the idea that knowledge is to be cherished, both for its own sake and for its power to change lives. That was why, when they sought to improve themselves, members of the working class in the 18th and 19th centuries reached for the bookshelves. That is why Andrew Carnegie, the ultimate self-made man, devoted much of his fortune to building libraries. The design almost always included a staircase and a lantern – symbols of learning’s power to uplift the mind, and illuminate the soul.

Full piece at The Telegraph.

1 comment:

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