Thursday, 30 April 2015

Tales from the library

A petition of 4,000+ signatures from Whitstable aimed at 'saving our local libraries' has just been submitted to Kent County Council.
Richard Stainton, whom I know and respect, has worked extremely hard at putting this together so I feel I owe him and others an explanation of why my name is not on the list. I passed up the opportunity of signing when I was offered a sheet of paper at Windy Corner Stores a couple of weeks ago.

Firstly: petitions. Really? Are they worth the paper they are written on? As a somewhat cynical old hack, I'm not so sure. I've attended many a council meeting in my time - all over the country, not just in Kent - where wodges of signatures are just tossed aside without much of a murmur. In reality, you see, issues like this have already been the subject of many long and intricate reports and hundreds of hours of council officers' time before they come to public knowledge, so that a decision is more or less already in the bag.

Also it kind of seems to me that this is a charmingly old-fashioned means of protest. Electronic petitions are where it's at in 2015.  Did you know that if you can gather at least 100,000 names, the Government is obliged to debate your issue in the House of Commons? If you follow the link I've given, you'll see that this is a pukka newly-established gesture towards democracy although at the moment, your petition will have to wait until after the election. 100,000 signatures... our local library activists still have a long way to go. Perhaps they should go national? I'll bet KCC isn't the only local authority reviewing the library service.

Next quibble: there seems to be no suggestion that our libraries will actually close, but some discussion on whether they should instead be run by charitable trusts. ... just like Whitstable Museum, Whitstable Castle, the Horsebridge Centre, the Whitstable Improvement Trust to name but a few local institutions (see my earlier blogpost, 'Trust me, I'm from Whitstable'). Now, if it's OK for some services to be run by trusts, what exactly is different about libraries? I'm curious to know where we draw the line. I'd also like to see some comment from our local KCC members, who don't seem to be backing the petition as far as I can see in the local press. or even commenting publicly.

Finally, what is the rationale behind the suggestion that KCC sheds this particular public responsibility? Money-saving, for one thing, and we all want to pay less council tax. But maybe, just maybe, our local public libraries aren't the essential go-to places they once were?
When I was about 10, I desperately wanted to be a 'library lady'. I defaced many of my own books by sticking in pages for (hand-written) date stamps while forcing my younger sister to borrow them. Then I badgered the Rochester children's librarian, Miss Horsley, to let me help out on Saturday mornings. I never got to stamp the books, which was what I really wanted to do, but instead got the re-shelving job.... I was quite good at alphabetical order!
I loved books, but there weren't many in my house, only a few I managed to buy second-hand with my pocket money. So the library was my treasure-house. After a few months of Saturday 'volunteering' I persuaded the long-suffering Miss Horsley to upgrade me to the adult library next door so I could use my card there too. Wow - what an Aladdin's cave!
Right from then up until, I would say, about 10 years ago I continued to be a loyal and regular library user, enrolling my son when he was about a year old and visiting most weeks.
But gradually I've stopped going, and I don't even have a card for the Whitstable branch. I suppose I have simply found that I do not need the library any more. For reference-type material, the internet is a much more vast and up-to-date resource. Libraries recognised this when they installed public-use computers, but now it is a rare household that does not have its own domestic broadband access.
As for what we might call 'reading books' they have become cheaper to buy online and in bookstores, and widely recycled in charity shops where you can pick up a copy for £1 or even 50p. My Dad knows where you can get them cheapest. You might say that even this is more expensive than the free library service.
Yes - except that it isn't free, because we all pay for it in our council tax whether we use it or not. And you have to return the book. Maybe with a fine (!); maybe the library is not conveniently located for you to walk to; maybe they haven't got the book you want so you have to order it...
Institutions like the British Library, the Bodleian in Oxford and the wonderful Birmingham Library do have vast, valuable and important collections and it might be worth considering whether financial resources should be focused there rather than on purchasing a few more copies of Dan Brown's Inferno for the local branches (most borrowed book, 2013/14).  

I hope there is a wide-reaching look at exactly what we need from our libraries in the 21st century. It will be a missed opportunity if we don't.
If we are imaginative and can re-invent a library which can become part of all our lives again, I might be first in the queue to fulfil that ambition to be a voluntary 'library lady'!