Sunday, 3 April 2011

Libraries and Zadie

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. 


A K Haart said...

Interesting post. I’m a real bibliophile, but I haven’t been to a library in years. My parents enrolled me in two libraries as a way to instil in me a love of books. It worked, but, but I’ve no interest in books selected for me by local government.

Anonymous said...

Don't blame the Librarians, blame the Council. The Librarians just turn up for work in the morning and groan at the latest moronic memo that has come from one of the dozen layers of "Management" above them. Most librarians became librarians because they love books; they may like Internet access etc but the design of these places, their ethos (and the lack of shelf space and funding for books) comes from "Community and Cultural Managers" on £100,000k a year who never visit libraries and who don't like the fact that most library users are elderly, because old people smell. No, they want to be funky cultural "hives" where everyone is socially included, whether they drive out existing customers and abide by the bye-laws of the library or not. So now libraries are full of brain dead teens shouting and trying to nick computers whilst the core users come in, are shocked by the lack of books and poor behaviour and then leave never to return.

If you want to blame librarians for this (take it from one who knows) you may as well blame yourself and other Council Tax payers for "knowingly funding" ASH, Common Purpose and whatever other lunacy your taxes get spent on.

Anonymous said...

It is a new world in Britain now, anyone daring to think and read, will be re-educated.
The thought police are watching.

Bill Quango MP said...

As a responsible MP, who needs to be re-elected at some point, I am hosting several save our library meetings.
At one village the library costs about £20k pa lease for the building, £45K for staffing then heating/lighting/insurance/ H&S guff and assorted extras. So its around £80k to run each year.

For the same money we could give every current weekly user a laptop, annual internet broadband and a kindle. Or alternatively an £800 voucher for Amazon.

The problem is that libraries, have been left for far too long without an alternative idea, since DVDs and CDs from the 1990's, being put forward. Why not use Amazon? Why not post out books ordered from a central library on line, or from a catalogue. All booksellers are struggling. The library funding put into booksellers would help them out. I'm sure they would have enough ideas of their own to add.
But its probably too late. The funding has to stop today and theirs no money left for ideas.

JuliaM said...

Thank god for the Internet, and boot sales, and church jumble sales and fetes. Many treasures to be found there...

mys beoĆ¾ faegere said...

Yes, Julia M. The answer is surely to collect those treasures and save them somehow.

Thanks for bringing this one up Raedwald. We should question teachers who demand that students refer only to scholarship published 'in the last 5 years' -- especially where the discipline's historical in nature!

Wildgoose said...

I was shocked at what had happened to my old school library when visting (as a by-election candidate) in 1994, so I fully appreciate the point you are making.

But please don't ruin the point by derogatory digs at autism which is a serious and genuine disorder.

Elby the Beserk said...

Radio 4 - On FM, On AM, On Digital, Online, and most importantly of all, always ON MESSAGE.

MJW said...

My local library is under threat, which is a shame, because I use it, but most of the local residents don't. I was told it costs about £40 for each book issues. It probably doesn't help that I tend to order in most of the books I borrow, at the princely sum of 50p it cannot be doing much to offset the cost, but the selection is so poor I wouldn't use it otherwise. But lack of space means that I only buy books I'm likely to want to keep after reading, which means fiction paperbacks I read as a counter to my more pretentious reading come via the library.