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.