Personal, Politics, Technology

Libraries Still Matter


I’ve never been a big reader of fiction. I have my favourites but they’re drawn from a fairly small selection. But I do love books. And I always have.

As a child I possibly spent more on library fines than anything else.

I would always leave the library with the maximum 8 books. I just didn’t always return them on time…

Sometimes it was on subjects I knew and loved, but sometimes it was on only semi-related, or even random, subjects. I had – and still have – an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

Leaving aside the wider political issue of the wisdom of austerity vs investing in the country, the cuts to the library service that are taking place at the moment are a national disgrace.

One of the main arguments, put very simply, is we have the internet now so we can’t justify the cost of libraries when the limited money could be better spent in other areas.

This – as author, campaigner, and my friend Dom Conlon explains far more politely than I am about to – is bullshit.

Yes, the internet is incredible. I remember when I first got access to the internet and used ‘gopher’ to access universities around the world. It was amazing.

And with the development of the web and browsers in the early 90s it became easier to use and – well, we all know the rest.

But access to information isn’t the same as the knowledge of how to find it.

Imagine you’re looking for a part or a tool for a DIY job. Unless you’re an expert you’ll probably need some help. In the old days, and in some very rare cases still, you’d go to a shop and the staff would know exactly what you needed to do the job.

They had years of experience and had seen everything. These days, with the big sheds, you’ll be lucky if they can point you to the right aisle.

Librarians are specialists. They not only have a love and passion for books, but they have the experience to be able to help you find what you need.

They can be the difference between a child finding the first thing that comes to hand, or finding something truly special that may actually go on to shape their life.

And for older people in particular, libraries are a place to meet and talk. For some it’s the only chance they get to socialise all week. And if you get the children and the older people talking you’ve got a recipe for magic.

One of the few fiction books I did love as a child was one I bought from my local library when they were selling some books off. It was a collection of short sci-fi stories.

It contained a novella by EM Forster called The Machine Stops, first published in 1909. Set in a dystopian future where people live alone in underground pods, and the only commodity is information – and not necessarily correct information – it’s an amazing story which effectively foretold the invention of the internet.

I don’t want to stretch the comparison too far, but it does remind me of the arguments that people can find information online. Yes, they can. But without real human interaction that’s only part of the story.

The Machine Stops is now more widely known, largely because of its predictions about the internet, but at the time I found it at the library it was an obscure work. It certainly helped shape my life and my views – as did many of the books I borrowed.

Dom has been superb in his campaigning to try to prevent the closure of not just his local library, but library services in general. Sadly – as long as we continue with austerity – he’s fighting a losing battle. But credit to him and the other people involved for going down fighting. And shame on those who are rubber-stamping the cuts.

The video above is of Dom talking passionately about the library closures and explaining the many reasons why libraries still matter. It’s a great interview and well worth watching.

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