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.)