In defence of the public library

Derek Jones finds that although borrowing is on the increase councils are being tempted to close down the word

Forty years ago I lived and worked in Becontree, an estate of 25,000 people, built between the wars, mostly to house people from east London following slum clearance. However, a significant minority came from Manchester to work for Fords of Dagenham, notorious in the 1950s and 60s for the number of strikes, which took place there.  Conventional wisdom would have suggested that Becontree was not a place where you might have expected to find a progressive and daring library authority.

In fact, Becontree Libraries were well known for the quality of their service and for a most adventurous book acquisition policy. Tentatively, and without much expectation of success, my wife enquired whether there was a copy The Anathemata, David Jones’ long poem exploring parallels between early British history and the myths of the Mediterranean. Jones, incidentally, was the son of a Flintshire man.

This was hardly a title on everybody’s lips! The Chief Librarian, John O’Leary, was approached. The book was not in their catalogue, but he immediately agreed to buy three copies, no less. My wife felt bound to ask whether he could justify these acquisitions to his committee. He replied that he was buying them for posterity – and, for all I know, they are still on the library shelves of what is now the London Borough of Barking.

John O’Leary was a remarkable man. He reminds me of Jeremy Isaacs, first chief executive of Channel 4, who presided over the commissioning of programmes whose audiences were sometimes so small that they could hardly be counted. He argued that people from many different backgrounds should have the chance to sample all manner of unfamiliar subjects. So much for marketing, a practice which is, sadly and quite inappropriately, now applied to book buying for public libraries.

The spirit, which animated John O’Leary and Jeremy Isaacs, is far from absent from the history of Welsh Libraries. Consider the Tredegar Miners Library, which circulated some 100,000 books a year by the 1930s. Aneurin Bevan was for a time chairman of the book selection committee. His influence was surely at work in the purchase of the entire works of Lenin. They remained largely unread, but there they were, in case anybody felt moved to dip into them.

H.V. Morton in his In Search of Wales (1932), wrote: “At a street corner in Tonypandy I heard two young men discussing Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. I know this was exceptional, but it is significant and it is true”. Morton did not speculate on the source of their interest, but it is a reasonably safe bet that they had borrowed books on the subject from the library.

Philip Henry Jones’ Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland (2006) has a chapter on public libraries in Wales.  He suggests that their golden age was considerably later than the miners’ libraries. He believes it lasted a mere 15 years, from the late 1950s until the early 1970s. It all depends, I suggest, on what you mean by ‘golden’. The numbers of people borrowing books may well have reached a high point during those years, but the examples cited above suggest something much stronger and deeper should be used to justify expenditure on libraries. This is their power to extend the intellectual ambition of their readers and to take seriously their capacity to be challenged in unfamiliar areas. In short, it is their contribution to an educated society.

Doubtless this commitment is still present – there must surely be some present day John O’Learys working, unsung, in Welsh public libraries. However, such commitment to adventurous practice is rarely used as an argument in their defence, even by those currently defending libraries from threatened closure or cuts in the service. Thus, for example, when he was Culture Minister in the One Wales government last year Alun Ffred Jones declared:

“Libraries provide an important role in the community and the Welsh Government is committed to supporting them. Aside from providing a wide range of books… libraries offer a meeting place for many local groups, special events and internet services”.

Or, consider this from Labour leader Ed Miliband earlier this year:

“Libraries are places where community is built as families get to know each other and form friendships”.

Of course, nobody could quarrel with such sentiments, and nobody would want libraries to be gloomy or unfriendly places, or that they should not also act as meeting places. But Miliband’s advocacy in particular could as well be applied to any number of venues with a better claim to act as meeting places for families. Alun Ffred’s reference to a ‘wide range’ can, unfortunately, mean anything or nothing. Miliband and Jones’s support is welcome but there is no sense in their statements that libraries might live more dangerously, or even that they are there, at least in part, to serve the intellectual heart of their communities.

Such soft approaches play straight into the hands of those who close libraries on the grounds that they are not ‘value for money’. Already Flintshire has closed branches in Bagilt, Gwernaffield and Queensferry. Conwy is closing seven out of their twelve public libraries. Carmarthenshire is threatening to close three libraries in the Gwendraeth Valley. If Miliband’s comment is all there is to say about libraries, then one can, just about, understand the reasoning behind such cuts. Libraries only as meeting places may well be dispensable – there are already considerable provision for them. Library authorities need the challenge of better arguments.

Admittedly, library use in Wales is increasing – from 13.9 million visits in 2008-09 to 14.7 million in 2009-10. There are 645,000 active borrowers. What kind of fare is on offer? Would I be entirely wrong to suggest that libraries increasingly follow public taste rather than lead it? As in broadcasting  – the BBC, and also, alas, Channel 4 – content and presentation are increasingly tabloid. So we have a universal provision of celebrity biographies, a concentration on entertainment at the expense of education, People are being given ‘what they want’ rather than an extension to their horizons.

Of course, I do not advocate that they should purchase the works of Lenin, nor even, necessarily, The Anathemata. Yet Einstein should surely be there as well as the very best of scientific, political, and literary works, ancient and modern. The ideal should surely be that every library contains a considerable collection on which readers might happen by chance, as well as design and which have the potential to change their view of life’s possibilities.

Lest it be thought that I want to clear out all the popular fiction and crime stories that are the staple fare of public libraries, and always have been, even in Tredegar, it is worth recounting the following: Catherine McMullen (b 1906) was a workhouse laundress, who felt moved to read books, but did not know how to do so. It was suggested that she should read the Letters of Lord Chesterfield to His Son. She borrowed the book from a public library, her first ever visit. She wrote later, “And here began my education. With Lord Chesterfield I read my first mythology. I learned my first real history and geography”. A lifetime’s reading was launched – Chaucer, Donne, Gibbon, James Joyce. She became Catherine Cookson, wrote over ninety novels, which sold over 100 million copies. In her time she was responsible for a third of all the books loaned from public libraries. Jonathan Rose quotes her story with good reason in his The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, (Yale University Press, 2001).

It at least partly justifies my argument, especially now when authorities are being tempted, or even encouraged, to make cuts. In 2001, long before the current economic turmoil, I wrote, in my Censorship – A World Encyclopaedia:

“Dumbing down is now the main issue in studies of library censorship in Britain…Where money is short libraries are tempted to purchase only books for which there is a ‘market’. Purchasing for a possible future market, in which tastes may have changed and educational standards improved, cannot be afforded… Can we be sure that (professional librarians) always act even-handedly, or do other considerations… the budget (especially)…  play a part in a most unlibrary-like censorship?”

Derek Jones is a freelance writer. He edited Censorship – A World Encyclopaedia (4 vols, Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001).

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