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Regular trips to the library have been a comfort to me since childhood. Empty backpack on the way there, full of goodies (mostly comics) for the weekend on the way back. Until I came to the UK to study, my main library experience was that of Barcelona’s public libraries; only now do I realise how comparatively fortunate I was. Municipal cultural policy in Barcelona has made public libraries a strong priority over the past couple of decades – the number of libraries has increased significantly during this period, and libraries also tend to offer a series of side activities (book clubs, conferences, courses) which make them feel welcoming and well-used. During my time at university, I found little need to venture beyond the university library – both for work and for pleasure, I was always able to find more than enough books to keep me well occupied. Therefore, it is only since I started working full-time in London some months ago that I found myself seriously engaging with the public libraries in my local borough.
The first time I visited my local library in Southwark, it was the “Quick Picks” section near the entrance which perplexed me most. The intention behind it is understandable – to emulate a nice cosy bookshop which allows you to browse near the entrance without having to venture further inside. I found, however, that it had a rather opposite and off-putting effect, and was reminded of the inevitably desperate “two for one pound” section in a discount bookshop. To a lesser degree, I found that this problem repeated itself in the main library sections. Of course I was equally able to find James Joyce, but I can only describe the general bookish atmosphere of the library as desolately lowbrow. I may be accused – perhaps not completely unjustly – of intellectual snobbery, but the fact is that on my recent trips to the library, I have always come back feeling somewhat uneasy: the self-help and business sections exceed those allocated to theatre and poetry, and (with all due respect to thrillers) the thriller section is as large as the classics section. As for the foreign languages section, I found it to be so embarrassingly small that it cannot even be justified by the traditional Anglo-Saxon blindness to all languages other than English. In other words, a “pragmatic” library catalogue which does leave space for much sentimentality. Despite my fondness for libraries, I have inevitably found myself increasingly turning to second-hand bookshops in order to fill in the gaps.
Naturally, I do not expect (or want) to find only Everyman Classics and Faber and Faber in a public library. Commercial lending libraries were once an important Victorian institution (wonderfully described by Orwell), and it is only fair that modern public libraries continue to perform part of that role. In some respects, this no-nonsense approach which does not require library books to be “worthy” in some way or other has its appeals: for instance, here in London I have been able to borrow a few interesting “smart thinking” books which I might struggle to find at a public library back at home in Barcelona. However, I cannot help but feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with a library which makes a mediocre Waterstones look attractive by comparison. Perhaps the problem is not so much that the library collection is maintained following the wrong criteria, but that there appears to be no clear criterion of selection or even shelving within the library itself. As far as I am aware of, there are no public terminals which allow you to consult the library catalogue without having to ask the staff. And do they really achieve anything by charging 40 p a week for borrowing a CD (apart from discouraging the few potential borrowers)?
Another sign that worries me every time I visit the library is the amount of people who are there with the ostensible purpose of being warm indoors more than anything else. This is a diffuse category, ranging from the homeless man with plastic bags who can only be described as smelly, to the pensioner who comes to the library to give his day a sense of purpose and falls asleep over the paper every afternoon. I myself often fall into this category; when I am waiting between appointments or something similar, I like to take refuge in a nearby library and find something to read. Undoubtedly, the idea of a library as a place of refuge is one of the main functions of a public library. The problem arises when this becomes the main function of the library, and it starts looking like a social care centre more than a library. Depressing books, depressing atmosphere: why bother going to the library at all? Once this vicious cycle of library depressingness is established, it becomes very hard to break. Add to this the increasingly depressing opening hours of many libraries, and public libraries effectively become an option of last resort.
Obviously, it all comes down to money. Councils have no money, and to put it plainly, they simply do what they can. Despite its tiny size and lack of toilets, I am always comforted when I see librarians helping schoolchildren do their homework or a group South Americans having an English lesson in East Street Library. The irony is that at a time when libraries are needed more than ever as a place of refuge and education (and internet) because of benefit cuts, the same cuts undermine the ability of the library to provide these basic services.
The proposed move towards eliminating professional librarians and running libraries on a volunteer basis, although understandable, would be the final nail in the coffin, effectively relegating public libraries to the realm of charities. Once more, it is worth bringing Waterstones into the argument. Under the direction of James Daunt (the founder of Daunt Books), Waterstones bookshops have been encouraged to become increasingly differentiated between each other and adapt themselves to their their local area and customers. A couple of weeks ago I found myself at the Gower Street Waterstones (formerly Dillons), having not been there since my time at UCL: the bookshop felt almost entirely different to the one I had last visited. Little handwritten recommendations from staff, an eclectic mix of brand-new and second-hand books, and carefully planned “Quick Pick” displays which actually did attract your curiosity. I can only describe the effect of these changes as immensely successful. However, they are only achievable with both love and resources: however well-intentioned library volunteers might be, they can never offer these two things in the same way as a professional librarian can do so. I realise that until know, I had always unconsciously considered “library rights” to be a natural extension of my citizenship, something not to different from voting or universal healthcare. I am beginning to think otherwise.