Friday, 29 August 2008

Just who are you to say that?

Of all the poor benighted cultural institutions in this country, the one that attracts more ill informed comment than any other is the humble public library. Last weekend saw another classic of the kind, as the Observer's Hephzibah Anderson added her complaint.

I don't rely on, but I do use Lewisham's libraries. They're nothing special, and do provide me with access to the information and books that I need when I need them. Like the time my broadband fell over and I needed to get online, or when I needed a travel book, or that text for my evening class.

But it's since my little boy has come on the scene that they have come into their own. T so loves his trips to Bounce and Rhyme at Lewisham that he goes for a second helping at Crofton Park. In doing so he's learning to communicate and to engage, and he's learning to be at home in the library, which I hope provides a foundation for him to help him learn and to have fun throughout his life.

I'm a fan of libraries, no question, and (as regular readers of this blog now) as a committed localist I have an understanding of the role they play in local communities.

Which is why I get so upset when I read articles like Anderson's. They want to kick T out of the library and replace him with a mini-Bodleian. They just don't get where libraries are now.

Libraries are about providing access to information and to literature in settings that are appropriate to the communities that they serve, and this goes completely against the 1950s views of Anderson et al.

The public library exists so that those who would otherwise be unable to access the information and literature they need can do so in a setting that is social and communal. That vision needs to be constantly refreshed as technologies, society and places change.

Libraries never were about being palaces of books, but the argument that they were and that they should be again is sadly dominant in our broadsheets and amongst our cultural commentators. They drown out the voices of those who actually understand libraries and know their role in national and local life.

Anderson as good as admits this:
Like plenty of people who count themselves supporters of public libraries, it had been a while since I last stepped inside one.
So, who is Hephzibah Anderson? If she's not been in a library for years, what else qualifies her to pontificate on what they should be about? According to Jewish Quarterly, she is:
deputy fiction critic for The Observer, Fiction Editor of the Daily Mail, and a visual arts writer for the Evening Standard. She sits on the editorial board of the Jewish Quarterly, and writes regularly for the Jewish Chronicle, the New Statesman and Zembla Magazine. She also reviews for BBC Radio London and BBC Radio 2.
So, we can safely assume that she knows nothing about what libraries do and what they are about. Sadly, this doesn't stop her or her colleagues in the arts pages, or novelists (now, there's a producer interest!) lecturing the rest of the world.

Such people are the only obvious participants in what is a very one sided debate. Let's hope local councils listen to their communities, not the siren voices of the Sunday papers.

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