Why the writing's on the wall for our libraries

PUBLISHED: 13:10 24 May 2011 | UPDATED: 19:26 20 February 2013

Why the writing's on the wall for our libraries

Why the writing's on the wall for our libraries

Our libraries must be saved says Peter Sampson

Our libraries must be saved says Peter Sampson

There used to be films where the heroine, plain and prim throughout the early scenes in thick glasses and hair in a tight bun, would suddenly take off her glasses, loosen her hair onto her shoulders and the hero, until then blind to what was perfectly obvious to the rest of us, would gasp something like Gee, I guess youre really kinda beautiful.

She was always the town librarian.

Librarians have always struggled against the stereotype of being thinlipped spinsters forever saying Shh! behind a threatening forefinger and a pince-nez.

Now, however, whether they look like Michelle Pfeiffer or the back of a bus doesnt seem to matter very much, at least in Suffolk. Along with lollipop ladies in the county, the whole lot of them are a threatened species, since the County Council is wondering whether or not to shut down about two-thirds of Suffolks libraries, now that its decided to knock some 42.5 million off this years budget. It seems that only Ipswich, Bury and Stowmarket can be sure of retaining one.

The rest well, they could be closed altogether, have their opening hours drastically reduced, be run by amateurs or be handed over to an American firm to run for profit, complete with a coffee shop. All is guesswork and rumour, at least at the time of writing.

Strange places, libraries. Ipswich was one of the first places to have any sort of town library, way back in 1612, when Shakespeare was still around. The big surge in the number of libraries freely open to all, though, was the result of the Public Libraries Act in 1850. Now, theyre used by some 80% of the population, including the young. As well as obviously borrowing books that may range from the silly to the profound, they use them to find information about jobs or businesses, to check up on their GPs qualifications, to listen to lectures, hold meetings, link to the Internet, get hold of Braille or large-print books, read magazines or to sit in a corner and just read.

An old man in Wickham Market borrows two Westerns every month, a child in Long Melford read The Gruffalo and now wants to read everything else Julia Donaldson wrote and, in Clare, a student is researching the history of the local United Reform Church.

Of course, it would be silly to deny that libraries have lost some of their functions. If you want to know the size of Suffolks population, then Wikipedia will give you the figure in point nothing of a second (its 668,553, actually, according to the 2001 census) which saves you a trip to the librarys reference section.

And of course you can now download novels on to a Kindle thingy but to do that you first have to spend a sizeable chunk of money on the gadget and then pay for each book, which makes it a rather middle-class sort of thingy.

The big advantage of public libraries was that they were free. You only paid for their use with a minuscule part of the taxes you paid. This was because there was a time, believe it or not, when society felt that every one of its members, rich or poor, should be equally able to get hold of the riches of human civilisation. In that way, the whole of society was itself enriched.

Now, when people can volunteer themselves for general knowledge quizzes on national television even though they find it difficult to divide 18 by 3 and believe British forces in World War II were commanded by General Custer, it doesnt seem a particularly good moment to be closing libraries.

Illustration by Lucy Roberts

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