Let Our Libraries Live!

My world has been rocked. I am upset. I have been upset since this morning when it happened. Or rather when I found out that it had happened. Against the odds, I have stayed upset despite a lovely lunch, despite using my new turbo brush that actually picks up the cat fur so I can see what colour the carpet really is without an orange layer covering it, despite phone calls and chats with friends and family. I can’t put the clock back to after breakfast time and remake my plans so that I would stay in happy ignorance. I suspect that sooner or later I would have found out anyway.
This is what happened. I wanted to return my library books and decided to go to a library a bit further from my home but still in easy walking distance. I was there a few weeks back and noticed that they had some interesting novels. It was where I managed to get hold of a copy of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods which I finished while I was away. More of that later maybe.
So I wrapped up warmly against the cold, and stepped out into the street and through the back ways with my books in my bag. The library was warm and quiet. I listened approvingly to a library assistant asking some children to keep their voices down. My usual library has changed from a place of hushed quiet to one where mobile phone calls are made and taken casually around the shelves, and the browsing borrower has to navigate past people with laptops making the most of the free wifi.

I walked over to the adult fiction section. The first shelf spaces had book displays. So did the next shelf spaces. Then there were shelf spaces holding nothing. I asked the library assistant where the books were. We cleared them out he said. Last Wednesday. Any book that hadn’t been borrowed for six months has been discarded. So there was one shelf with three copies of Fifty Shades of Grey. Actually, I think that’s what did it for me, what made my stomach lurch and despair cloud my soul.
I know six months is a slightly more generous time allowance than Waterstones, where I understand any book unsold after three months goes back to the publisher, but when did libraries start operating like commercial booksellers? Why is it that I can find multiple copies of books that are easily available in high street bookshops but nothing by Penelope Lively or Jennifer Johnson? Just because they are not selling like hot cakes or in the top ten at the minute, doesn’t mean they aren’t a resource, a valuable asset for a community library. I cull my own books fairly often, but I have reread books after a period of years and loved them all over again.
Not so long ago I would visit the library two or three times each week. Books have opened my mind and widened my world. Books that have been discarded now because I didn’t have the wit to reborrow them every six months to keep them on the shelves. I found books by authors I had never heard of. Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here led me to Canadian Jewish writing. I didn’t know he was linked with Playboy until a male friend expressed some surprise at my reading another of his books. I think it was Joshua Then and Now, another library book, naturally. You could look a long time for one of his books in Southwark’s libraries now. Today’s borrowers don’t have the same opportunities I had. I suppose I was lucky to have had the chance to read them in the first place, but community libraries are supposed to serve the whole community, and I am getting the feeling that I don’t fit the customer profile anymore.
I don’t think it’s too big a claim to say that libraries have shaped me. They have been a source of wonder and discovery since I was borrowing the square picture story books before I started school. I can remember my mother taking me to the library for the first time and seeing aisle upon aisle of books. And that was before the new library was built.
My parents weren’t well off, but the library leveled the playing field of opportunity more than anything else I can think of. When I read
Jeannete Winterson’s Why be Happy when You Could Be Normal? recently, it was clear that without the public library her life would have been the poorer. I was almost jumping up and down and cheering when she wrote scathingly about how the books that had given her a glimpse of a different world were no longer on the shelves. There are some things that market forces should not be applied to, and libraries are in that category. Nor do I believe that books should be discarded to make space for computers. If we are identifying a need for ICT suites in the community they should be as well as, not instead of, books.
And just in case you think it’s just novels that this six month rule applies to, think again. The same rule applies to non-fiction. The history section of my library is now a couple of meagre shelves deep.
It fills me with foreboding.


14 thoughts on “Let Our Libraries Live!

  1. Well said. I completely agree. It seems totally irrelevant to apply the six month rule to a library – and yes IT add-ons in the library should be just that.

    • If the bookshops send books not selling enough back to the publishers, and the libraries discard those that are not frequently borrowed, how can anyone without an extensive private library find books by a range of authors from different times? I wanted to reread some Len Deighton but find he is out of fashion and gone from the library.

  2. Agreed. And CH and I have pretty much stopped going to our local library because of the cell phone issue. He likes to sit and read the paper and magazines while I look for books. He got tired of listening to cell phone conversations while trying to read and I got tired of trying to find the books on the list I had or have a book jump out at me while someone was having a conversation on their cell about how their sister deserved what happened to her because she was smoking dope! Bah! I am so sick of cell phones. I own one and I use it but I truly try not to bother people with it. Sorry this turned into a rant and went OT about cells Isobel.

  3. We’re very lucky here in this town, I see. We’ve had local branches shut down ($$) and hours reduced ($$), but generally the library is full of books. Cell phones are visibly discouraged. Books are still being purchased.

    I, too, remember the magical experience of being introduced to the library as a young child. My local library has been a place of refuge for me this past year–getting lost in the possibilities…. learning something new…. reading about painters…. finding writers yet undiscovered.

    What you describe is sickening and carries a dark foreboding…. Discarding history?! What nincompoop committee was in charge of this stupid, narrow decision? More worrying is that this is probably the first phase of several, but you haven’t heard yet what’s next for your library. Damn fools.

    • I can see where they are coming from, but I think they are missing the point of what makes a good library. They have been selling off books for years. It is accepted policy, but I have never seen anyrthing like the empty shelves in the library yesterday. If the books aren’t there you can’t discover them. Simple really. Fools indeed.

      • It is an odd moment in our history to suddenly change the basic tenet of public libraries. What propelled the change, I’d ask. Why change the fundamental purpose of a *public* library?!

  4. I agree that it’s disturbing for those of us who have always loved our libraries “as they were”…..things truly have changed. I had the occasion to speak with a number of librarians this past weekend at an event I attended. They aren’t happy with the way of things now – rooms full of computers for reading instead of books with pages and the fun of checking out books and returning, etc. Times have changed though and iPads and Kindles/Nooks rule. Anyway, I miss the way things were in our libraries…..PERIOD! P.S. Loved Peaches & Herb as a “welcome home” on Sam’s blog….you’re so sweet….LOL


    • Our refernec libary was closed. There is now a ref section with computers not books at the rear of the lendinng library.
      I don’t believe Kindles etc do rule, and so far as can see they will be coexisting for the forseeable future. As you know I have a Kindle, but the last few books I have read have been proper books, on paper.

        • I agree, but I don’t think we have seen the back of printed books just yet. In fact, I have bought some booksto read on my Kindle when I am out and about, and the real thing for when I am home.
          Just becasue I buy CDs doesn’t mean I dom’t liek live music! πŸ™‚

  5. Our public library has signs posted to turn cell phones OFF and if you don’t and carry on a phone conversation while in the library, you’re politely asked to leave or turn off your phone. It’s annoying enough to try to enjoy a meal out while listening to people carrying on VERY private conversations on their phone!!
    The worse part about the library situation is when the public purse strings are tightened, library funding is the first thing to be cut! Our bookmobile services and free mailings of books for the handicapped were deleted last year.

    • Yet you know, we need our libraries and our art all the more when times are hard. The research going on into how the arts improve our lives, help our mental health signify to me that they are essentials.
      The cuts you desribe seem very harsh, and bound to affect some of the more vulnerable in society.

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