Bank on books and invest in public libraries – do it, David!

09 +00002014-04-29T10:52:03+00:0030 2012 § 12 Comments


I know that some of the readers of this blog have been following my contribution to the ‘Save Lincolnshire Libraries’ campaign.  I thought, therefore, that you might also be interested in an article that appeared in The Times last Thursday, which says:

“Economists have calculated the monetary value of sporting and cultural activities and found that going to the library frequently was – in satisfaction terms – worth the same as a pay rise of £1,359.”

Playing team sports came close behind – but still it was behind – at a value of £1,127.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to expect anyone to swallow this without a little pinch of salt.  How do you put a monetary value on any activity?  It could be taken to extreme limits: for example, I could estimate that the monetary value of my husband is £5,000 per annum, but only if he does the hoovering.  If he doesn’t do the hoovering, it drops to -£5; and either figure would have to be offset by the amount that he ratchets up on my credit card buying stuff for his greenhouse.  I jest, of course, though some of the assumptions made by the research team at the London School of Economics strike me as equally far-fetched.  The article continues:  “The authors … speculated that  … the sort of person who went to a gym was probably already tired of life and unhappy with their lot.”   I have no idea how they arrived at this conclusion.  Most of the people I know who attend gyms are irritatingly bouncy, dripping their endorphins and their self-righteous early morning starts all over everyone else.  I’m quite grateful for this observation, nevertheless, as it obviously lets me off ever setting foot in a gym again for the rest of my life.

But let me get back to the point.  If libraries are worth so much to the well-being of the individual, you’d think that, by now,  the government – and especially David Cameron, with his slightly suspect ‘well-being index’ – would have latched on to this and decided that it was a bad idea to keep on closing libraries and cutting their services.  Just think how they could keep inflation down if every time someone asked for a pay-rise, they could be told that £1,359 of it would be paid in library benefits!   By the by, the Prime Minister has responded to the splendid petition and letter given to him by ‘Save Lincolnshire Libraries’ campaigner Julie Harrison by passing them on to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, as being rather too hot to handle himself.  He should realise just how much libraries mean to, especially rural, communities in the county of my birth and elsewhere and take a lead on this at least.

I know that the government is struggling to see the value of libraries in today’s society and that it can’t get away from the idea that they are ‘old hat’.  In reply, I’d like to tell them to dust off their history books a little. Recently, I have been reading David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain.  If you haven’t come across David Kynaston’s three books, which at present cover the years 1945 – 1959 (there are more in the pipeline), you should rush out and buy them immediately, because they are the most brilliant evocation of post-war society you are ever likely to come across.  Austerity Britain chronicles the years 1945 – 1951 and, by chance also on Thursday, I reached the section on public libraries.  Kynaston quotes some Mass Observation opinions on why public libraries were so little used in 1947 and why people preferred magazines:

None of them subjects is interesting to me.  All I like is gangster stories, though there’s precious much chance of reading here.  Three rooms we got and three kids knocking around.  No convenience, no water.  I’m glad to get out of the house, I can tell you.

– Cos I ain’t got no interest in them [books] – they all apparently lead up to the same thing.

– I’m not very good at reading, I never was.  I’ve never liked it some’ow.

– Too long.  I have started books and I have to read through the first pages two or three times.  I like to get stuck straight into a story – there’s too much preliminary, if you see what I mean.

You might have expected public libraries to be more appreciated at this time of austerity, when wages were low and almost everything was rationed.  Apparently they weren’t.  But ten years later, when the nation was back on the road to prosperity, public libraries were enjoying the start of their heyday.  This lasted for at least three decades.  When I started work as a young library supplier at the end of the 1970s, public libraries were still highly regarded and librarians enjoyed considerable prestige.  They were also extremely well-supported by both local and national government.

Is there a moral here?  I’d say that if the experience of the past can teach us anything, it is that people are more interested in culture, including cultural services, when their lives are financially stable.  It makes sense, if you think about it, for people who are happy and settled in their jobs and home life to ‘make time’ to go to the library.  It is also understandable if people who are unemployed and desperately looking for work don’t feel able to find space for using the free public library service.  That is my take on it, anyway, and I think that the government should note the facts.  If Mr Gove is as worried as he says he is about standards of literacy among the young, he should encourage his colleagues at the Culture Department to stick up for public libraries.  There can be no cheaper or more effective way of encouraging high standards of literacy than to get children interested in books at an early age and to make as many books as they can read available to them, regardless of their social background.

When I was a child growing up in Spalding, the public library was on the ground floor of Ayscoughfee Hall.  (It subsequently moved to a purpose-built building in Henrietta Street and it was while taking a gap year to work as an assistant at this library that my friend Mandy brought me the book about Jack the Ripper when I was working in the Chinese restaurant with the putatively murderous cook called Moon.) There were only a few shelves of children’s books, and I had exhausted these long before the end of my primary school years.  The librarian there, a kindly lady, used her discretion and allowed me to join the adult section of the library, even though the rules stated that this was not possible for children under twelve.  There exists a very stereotypical idea of librarians as mousy, unhumorous and devoted to regulations (especially ‘no talking’);  I’m certain that this is unfair and that librarians like the one I knew in Spalding quietly go the extra mile all of the time in order to help people read and enjoy books.  We should celebrate librarians as well as libraries: along with booksellers, they are the great unsung heroes and heroines of civilised society.

(But before I get too eulogistic, I’d like to add that I’m now planning a future blog-post called Librarians I Have Known.  I won’t pre-empt it by offering more than a glimpse here, but, suffice it to say, it will include tales of red shoes, prostitutes, Spirella corsets and Sanderson sofas.  I may just have been lucky, but many of the librarians I’ve encountered have been very far removed from the stereotype.)

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§ 12 Responses to Bank on books and invest in public libraries – do it, David!

  • mauveone2014 says:

    Hi Christina, the Library nearest to me had a much needed face lift last year, since then it has gone from strength to strength.It is surprising that at least two ‘new built libraries’ have closed down. i think ours may be a 1960/70s vintage.

    We have a few groups, Reader Group, Poetry Group, Story telling group (for adults telling ‘My Stories’) a Knit and Natter. The local History Group put up exhibitions, there is also a Find your Ancestors (via the Internet) Group.

    The biggest change is, our village has a growing Polish Community, they use the Libraries computers to keep in touch with relatives at home. When you listen to passers by in the street or the Supermarket, it is Polish voices that predominate.When I was in the Library yesterday, some shelves of books have been removed, extra plugs have been built in and flat space, Next time I go in, I think there will be more computers installed.

    I think the ‘face’ and usage of Libraries is changing. On Saturdays, local Parish Counciller’s hold their surgeries to talk to people. I think our Library is a well used space. (We come under Wakefield Metropolitan District Council.

    • Hello, Marjorie! I am a good friend of Wakefield Libraries and support them on Twitter. They are a superb resource, as you say, and brilliantly forward-thinking. The range of activities available through them is nothing short of astonishing. Libraries are always changing and their staff continue to be flexible and incredibly knowledgeable. Thank you for highlighting your library here; it certainly needs your voice! 🙂

  • Anabel Marsh says:

    Great post, and I can’t wait to hear you spill the beans on librarians you have known! I think the quiet and mousy stereotypes are well out of date. I can remember a few from the beginning of my career (late 70s, like you) but don’t know any now. I left public libraries in 1990 and now that I am a regular user again I’m amazed at the changes. I go to a book group which meets in the library, so we’re making a noise AND we’re allowed to brew up. It took me a while to get used to that.

  • vallypee says:

    I’ve just read your post aloud to Koos. It’s more than just brilliant, it’s magnificent! If you are an example of what going to the library as a child can encourage and develop, then I think you would convince even the most jaded of library cynics. I loved going to the library as a child, and in the couple of years my own children were in the UK, we went every Saturday. Libraries have always been places of peace and comfort as well as excitement and anticipation for me. I just hope they continue to be so for children the world over. A wonderful post, Christina!

    • Thanks so much, Valerie! You can wake Koos up now! I’ve experienced libraries of one kind or another all my working life and I’ve been lucky therefore in having been able to watch their transformation into a service fit for the needs of contemporary communities, with all the advantages that technology has introduced. It is astonishing that this, of all services, is deemed appropriate for cuts. 🙂

  • J welling says:

    An informed populace is an obstacle to a certain type of government. I’m suspicious of any move against a robust public education, encumbering a free press, and the closing of libraries.

    I’ve been in the subversion business. I know the playbook. I’d say there was little reason to worry as these sorts soon bumble there way to failure…but I’d be deceiving you. They are surprisingly resilient at staying in office.

    • Hello, Jack. I see from the date that you posted this yesterday, so apologies for a late response. I share your view that restriction of the press, control of educational opportunity and removal of access to knowledge are worrying tendencies in government – Orwell put us on our guard for all time… and Huxley and Bradbury, too. I know that freedom of thought is worth fighting for, and access to books and information definitely so. That we have a judicial review in July of these library closures does offer some light in the darkness. Watch this space for how it turns out. As always, thank you.

  • Laura Zera says:

    May the force be with you in this effort to sustain the libraries, Christina. A similar effort was put forth in 2005 in Salinas, California, when the town (and former home of John Steinbeck) planned to shutter their three libraries. The outcry was fierce, and the libraries are still open today.

    p.s. I hate mornings, so I go to the gym at night. The evening crowd is much less perky.

    • Thank you, Laura. It will be a struggle, as local councils here are reaching crisis point in managing their funding. There is, however, a momentum for challenge to cutbacks as more and more voices and campaigns add themselves to those already on the go. Moral support from you is just wonderful. 🙂

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