Unlike Zadie Smith, I can't get too excited about council libraries closing. I grew up with Ipswich Central Library, a grand Victorian building packed full of books. The thrill was never the vast lending collection on the ground floor, but at the head of the grand oak staircase on the first floor - the reference collection. Here the walls of this large rectangular rooms were shelved from floor to ceiling with the sum of human knowledge, the nation's every law, our democratic transactions and even the records of our cricket matches going back to 1864. More importantly, and this is the crux, it contained books whose knowledge had been overtaken by later scholarship. Early 19th century works on surgery, for example, stood side to side on the shelves with the latest developments from South Africa (this was the era of the first heart transplants). Even as a teenager I had no difficulty in understanding the difference between them.
A few years ago I visited the then newly opened Lewisham Central Library. On the ground floor was a cafe and meeting area, a huge 'information' station of the sort found at the Boat Show, and some computer terminals. There was an area in which Autistic lesbians could exhibit their basket-weaving, and some posters. "Where are the books?" I asked one of the three staff in the service pod; she pointed upwards. On the first floor, in a small L-shaped room half the size of the ground floor, were a few chest-high shelving pods, and scattered so sparsely on their shelves that few could stand upright were a few books. Reader, I tell you no lie when I say I've got more books at home here than were contained in Lewisham Central Library. As a library, it was a misnomer. If it were closed tomorrow it would be mourned only by a few autistic lesbian basket-weavers who enjoy subsidised coffee and playing on the interweb.
The Telegraph this morning has a denial by Zadie Smith's mother that she ever stole books from her local library, an accusation made by Zadie in a Pro-Ed little encomium the BBC permitted her the airtime to make. And thereby hangs, I think, a delicious tale. You see, Zadie was quite honest in commenting that stacks of books collected by her mother bore the imprint 'Willesden Green Library' and Zadie's mother was also being quite honest in declaring that she didn't steal them. What Zadie is inadvertent witness to is one of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism in Britain - the stripping by moronic and vandalistic 'librarians' of the shelves of our libraries of any books that don't reflect the latest multicultural, politically correct, up-to-date writing on any subject. In the past twenty years they have been ransacked by the shelf-mile and consigned for sale at a pittance to the public; any history book written before 1980, any work of reference that was founded on the moral absolutism of a previous age, any work of anthropology that suggested physical differences between the races of men, every old book containing the banned words of the 1990s - all were censored, weeded and disposed of with a ruthless efficiency that would have made Goebbels proud. Leaving our library shelves bare of even the context of knowledge. My first diaphragm-wrenching laugh this morning came with the realisation that Zadie's mother had diligently bought stacks of these 'banned' books with which to educate her daughter, all still imprinted with 'Willesden Green Library'.
But the coffee-spluttering moment came in mother and daughter's admission that when Willesden Library announced a 'book amnesty', with great honesty and in all innocence, they no less diligently packed up and returned every banned and rejected book bearing the library's imprint.
You really couldn't make it up.