In a massive literary Pontius Pilate move by the council all libraries in N Yorkshire have now been offered to the local communities to run, and our local library will now be serving eight parishes. Being invited to act as a trustee on the new Local Library for Local People I was impressed by the very business-like approach of the others at the meetings towards things such as H&S, the drains, the size and siting of a new notice board and a stirring debate over whether or not to erect a meter in the five-car parking area to deter casual users.
Accepting that these mundane aspects must be covered I waited in vain for some idea of what sort of library was going to be in place henceforth. Given that library usage and borrowing by adults is avalanching into black holes across the entire country, and that the only category where it’s rising is with children, I tentatively, then more strongly suggested that the present model isn’t working anywhere in the UK and that a more radical approach might prove longer-lasting.
However my ideas fell on stony ground – to remove completely all adult and reference books; to devote 85% of our (pretty small) library space to children’s books, reading and story activities; to have a bank of five PC terminals for those with no access to computers; to increase and properly archive the woefully meagre local history section. The Northallerton Librarian i/c Librarians looked as if I’d flashed my nasty when I explained my proposal, and turned it down with that disbelieving glance Eric would give Ernie when the latter made some outrageous claim, despite my warning (meant seriously) that following the old model means the library will close to all in five years. She knew this was not so since she’d been in post for 29 years – and yes, she DID say that. So, call me Cassandra.
Adults use charity shops and Amazon for the majority of what I will call “entertainment reading”. I’m aware that some bizarre folk come in to borrow ten books at a time, but a business doesn’t stand or fall by the odd customer. If you HAVE to borrow your novels or biographies then take the bus to the central library six miles away. The Internet is now THE reference point of choice for the computer-literate world, which in this country is most of even the aged population of which I’m a Silver flag-waver. Nobody ever stirred the dust atop that shelf of Britannicas. Ever.
But according to the L i/c L, it is right and proper that the library be used to offer a warm corner to any down and out to simply sit there all day and not avail himself even of the newspaper. The idea of background music being played as if the library were a lift or Asda or a winebar meets with some approval. And it is quite beyond argument that the local Knit-and-Natter Group should meet en masse, talk loudly, drink coffee and generally fail to mention literature unless it be the latest pattern in Woman’s Weekly.
I should have saved my breath as I vainly explained that it was for this latter activity that village / church halls are designed; that the library is not a hostel but a place of the Written Word and for its Study; and that background music is as apposite there as a mobile phone call in the middle of “Un Bel Di“. I attempted to describe how the Victorian philanthropic library (to which we’re all hard-wired emotionally, myself included) is now utterly outdated; and that it not only should be consigned to history but that it is also already being ungently put to sleep by the nation, witness the declining millions of borrowers over the past decade. I pointed out that many school libraries have been phased out or depleted or are run by part-timers with little knowledge of literature, and the children’s public libraries are oases of learning for them. I stressed that the library is a business like any other and must adjust to suit its market.
Nope. Not a glimmer of understanding. I suspect that she’s a direct descendant of Captain Smith of the Titanic. The place will close in five years or so. And the children, of course, will suffer. I still cherish pictures of my daughter and granddaughter aged two lurching around their big, viable, well-funded children’s libraries surrounded by books, pulling books busily from the shelves to deposit on the floor, looking at pictures in books, putting a book in their mouths, hungry for knowledge.The two year-olds here in 2023 won’t be so lucky.