Saturday, February 5, 2011

Books are 'the architecture of a civilized society' - Gervase Phinn

Today is National Library Day in the UK, and people all over the country are protesting the closure of 450 libraries across Britain.

I know. I also thought that was a misprint.

Four hundred and fifty - just think of how many people that affects. Even if only 50 people go to one of those libraries in a year, that's 22,000 people.

I've lived in quite a few cities, and the ones that are the most culturally and intellectually aware are the cities with the best libraries. These buildings house words, yes, but they also house thoughts, ideas, and stories. Their bulletin boards advertise community events, yoga classes, meetings. Their computers give people free access to the internet. Their book groups bring people together who wouldn't have otherwise met. They showcase authors, they inspire writers, they help spread literacy. Because even the internet means nothing to someone who can't read.

Not to mention the library's impact on children. One of the most consistent memories from my youth was going to storytime at one of the libraries in Wichita. Hearing the voices read stories I probably knew but hadn't heard in that particular manner. Squealing when something unexpected happened. Begging to check out one more book, please. And staying up late the night before they were due back to read them again.

I'm not against everything the UK coalition government is doing; frankly, I agree with many of their ideas, and, in theory, the Big Society concept could really inspire communities to come together. But how in the world does closing 450 libraries fit in with supporting and enabling communities? Libraries should be sacred spaces; instead of eliminating, they should be upgraded to places people want to be.

I loved the library in Lerwick. Housed in an old church, it is bright, uncluttered, and has the appeal of an indie bookshop. It's got cushy chairs, plugs for laptop users, and daily newspapers. The librarians have a quirky way of displaying books; I discovered dozens of authors there. It was a delightful place. My only complaints were the opening hours - they closed too early and weren't open on Sundays.

I suppose that takes money, to keep a place open late. And on Sundays.

The National Library of Scotland is a groovy spot, too. I've been to an exhibition on the history of golf, a one-man play about a woman from Falkirk, watched World Cup matches, done much work with free wifi, ate excellent carrot cake, drank Earl Gray tea and merlot, and researched a story for a magazine. At a library.

Listen up, politicos. Make libraries better, not redundant.

UPDATE: Hopefully, they listened.

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